What Disney's Lucas Deal Means for 'Star Wars'

2012-39 REP Robert Iger George Lucas H

"It's time for me to pass 'Star Wars' to a new generation of filmmakers," said Lucas (right, with Iger) in announcing the Disney deal.

Three new movies (at least) and a global brand blitz will greatly expand one of Hollywood's biggest franchises.

Over four decades, George Lucas built an empire on a movie that took place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." But The Walt Disney Co. believes that Star Wars' most lucrative days are in the future -- on television, in theme parks and toy stores, on social media platforms and, perhaps most importantly, in a series of movies that for the first time will not be shepherded by Lucas. "We believe there is substantial pent-up demand [for new films]," Disney CEO Bob Iger told reporters shortly after the $4.05 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm was announced Oct. 30.

Disney plans to release three new Star Wars movies beginning in 2015, overseen by Lucasfilm president and veteran producer Kathleen Kennedy and based on treatments by Lucas. Beyond that, Iger said Disney will churn out new Star Wars films every two or three years indefinitely, providing the anchor for brand extensions worldwide. "We will substantially increase the footprint from a consumer products perspective," said Iger, echoing sentiments he expressed when Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel Entertainment in 2009, giving the company access to a stable of heroes not unlike Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Lucasfilm roster. Disney also intends to use Star Wars on its TV networks, most notably Disney XD, a cable channel aimed at young boys (which is likely bad news for Cartoon Network, which airs the popular Clone Wars animated series).

Star Wars attractions exist in four Disney parks, but Iger said more are planned, especially in Hong Kong and the upcoming park in Shanghai. Disney "can leverage Star Wars much better than Lucas did," says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "You will see this brand exploited across a bunch of different media platforms." Pachter says he wouldn't be surprised to tune in to Monday Night Football on Disney's ESPN network soon "and see some Star Wars characters," adding: "There is all sorts of stuff they can do. They can now do whatever they want with it."

Well, almost: Fox, which has distributed all six Star Wars films, still owns Lucas' 1977 original, Star Wars: A New Hope, and it has theatrical, nontheatrical and home video rights to the other five films worldwide through May 2020. And Lucas, 68, will remain a "creative consultant" on the films, though sources say the Disney deal marks a turn toward retirement for one of Hollywood's wealthiest creative moguls, who now will focus on philanthropy and his family near Lucasfilm headquarters in Marin County, Calif.

Sources say the next Star Wars movie will take place, chronologically, after Return of the Jedi, the sixth film in the series. (It is being referred to internally as Episode 7.) One possibility being considered is an Avengers-style universe with offshoot movies focusing on solo characters. "I've always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me," said Lucas. "I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime."