It was maybe the only thing that could have stopped the Internet talking about Superstorm Sandy: After more than three decades, George Lucas is stepping back from control of the Jedi, with the Walt Disney Company purchasing Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in cash and stock, the companies announced Tuesday. As if that wasn’t enough of a surprise, Disney announced that a new Star Wars movie would open in 2015, and — even more! — it would serve as the start of a new series of movies, with an installment planned for every two or three years.
In the press release accompanying the news, Lucas is quoted as saying that “it’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers,” adding that he’s “always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me” and that “it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.” Although he will act as a creative consultant on the new series, the filmmaker will hand over caretaking duties on the franchise to Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm’s current co-chairman, who will become President of Lucasfilm and Star Wars “brand management” under the new Disney ownership. According to Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger on an investor call late Tuesday afternoon, Lucas has signaled his “intention to retire” following the sale of the company.
On that same investor call, Disney’s Senior Executive Vice President and CFO Jay Rasulo said that the importance of Star Wars to Disney couldn’t be overstated, explaining that “[Disney’s] valuation of the Lucasfilm acquisition is almost entirely driven by the Star Wars franchise,” and adding that the Indiana Jones franchise didn’t really factor into Disney’s interest in Lucasfilm as a property (Reportedly, Paramount Pictures retains distribution rights to any future movies featuring the character, despite the sale). Iger underscored that, telling investors that “We expect the Star Wars franchise to provide us a stream of revenue across all platforms for the years to come.”
In order to do that, Disney will have to essentially re-activate Star Wars. Despite the movie series’ popularity — this year’s 3-D re-release of Episode I – The Phantom Menace made $43,456,382 in U.S. theaters alone — there hasn’t been a new live-action Star Wars movie since 2005, with the franchise being kept alive via comic books and the animated Clone Wars series aimed at children.
Perhaps worryingly for fans, both of these are now at risk as a result of the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm: The Clone Wars currently airs on Cartoon Network, owned by Disney competitor Warner Bros., while the comic books are published by Dark Horse Comics, a competitor of Disney’s Marvel Comics. Iger told investors on Tuesday that he thinks that Disney XD would be “a great home” for Star Wars television shows, signaling either an end, or possibly just a network shift, for The Clone Wars, while Dark Horse President Mike Richardson released a statement yesterday that said that, although the franchise “will be with us for the near future…we’ll all have to see what [the Disney acquisition] means for the future,” suggesting that Marvel Comics may reclaim the Star Wars license for the first time in 20 years.
According to Iger, 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII is already in active development; he told investors that Disney has “a lengthy treatment that we feel really good about,” although he avoided mentioning any plot details, or naming any creative talent involved in the project. That last point will likely be extremely important for both the core fan base and the wider potential audience. Who is in charge of the project will likely decide whether a new Star Wars is the runaway success of a Marvel’s The Avengers or a box office disappointment that ends up entirely grounding a fan-favorite property like 2010’s Tron Legacy or this year’s John Carter.
This isn’t the first time Disney and Lucas have partnered, of course; the Star Tours ride has been a mainstay at Disney theme parks since 1987, and the parks have also hosted annual Star Wars Weekends since 1997, complete with Disney characters dressed in Star Wars outfits. The acquisition of Lucasfilm continues what appears to be an unusually regular habit of buying out partners or competition on behalf of Disney, coming three years after the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, which itself happened three years after the company’s purchase of Pixar. Clearly, hot media companies looking for a massive one-off payday have three years to work themselves into Disney’s sights before the next spending spree. The rest of us can spend that time wondering whether or not Star Wars: Episode VII will mean a team-up between the Ewoks and the Gungans—just in case it makes for a better theme park experience down the line.