By RYAN NAKASHIMA
AP Business Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - A decade since George Lucas said "Star Wars" was finished on the big screen, a new trilogy under new ownership is destined for theaters after The Walt Disney Co. announced Tuesday that it would buy Lucasfilm Ltd. from him for $4.05 billion.
The seventh movie, with a working title of "Episode 7," is set for release in 2015. Episodes 8 and 9 will follow. The trilogy will continue the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia beyond "Return of the Jedi," the third film released and the sixth in the saga. After that, Disney plans a new "Star Wars" movie every two or three years. Lucas will serve as creative consultant in the new movies.
"I'm doing this so that the films will have a longer life," Lucas, the 68-year-old creator of the series and sole owner of Lucasfilm, said in an interview posted on YouTube. "I get to be a fan now ... I sort of look forward to it. It's a lot more fun actually, than actually having to go out into the mud and snow."
Disney CEO Bob Iger said Lucasfilm had already developed an extensive storyline on the next trilogy, and Episode 7 was now in early-stage development. He said he talked with Lucas about buying the company from him a year and a half ago, but they didn't decide on a deal until very recently as Lucas set in motion his retirement.
"The last `Star Wars' movie release was 2005's `Revenge of the Sith' _ and we believe there's substantial pent-up demand," Iger said.
The blockbuster deal announced Tuesday will see Disney pay half the acquisition price in cash and half in newly issued stock. The company expects it to add to earnings in 2015 and said that as an example of its earnings power, Lucasfilm made $550 million in operating income the year "Sith" came out. Along with the cash, Lucas will end up owning about 40 million Disney shares, which is about 2.2 percent of the 1.83 billion shares that will be in circulation when the transaction closes. Disney did not say when that would happen.
The deal includes Lucasfilm's prized high-tech production companies, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, as well as rights to the "Indiana Jones" franchise. Lucasfilm will continue to be headquartered in San Francisco's Presidio park, and employees are to remain in their current locations. Disney has its headquarters in Burbank, Calif., near Los Angeles.
The deal brings Lucasfilm under the Disney banner with other brands including Pixar, the Muppets, Marvel, ESPN and ABC, all companies that Disney has acquired over the years. Coincidentally, Lucas created Pixar as a division of Lucasfilm to develop computerized filmmaking techniques before he sold it to Apple's Steve Jobs, who later sold it to Disney.
Twitter went wild with the news as fans speculated on mash-up titles for future movies, using the hashtag "DisneyStarWars." Among the amusing attempts were "When You Wish Upon a Death Star" and "Bambi Wan Kenobi." "Star Wars," "LucasArts," "Disney," and "Indiana Jones" were all trending topics on Twitter after the deal was announced late Tuesday afternoon.
Fan club co-founder Ming Pan, a graphic designer in San Francisco, said he was glad audiences would get another "Star Wars" movie but worried whether the franchise would thrive after Lucas passes the torch.
"It's something that I thought may happen down the line, but I just didn't expect it to happen while Lucas was still alive because he has always expressed such a tight control over the `Star Wars' license," Pan said.
Lucas was hailed as a cinematic visionary when the original "Star Wars" came out in 1977. But he had become an object of often-vicious ridicule by the time he started releasing 3-D versions of all six films in the franchise this year.
Die-hard fans had been vilifying Lucas for years, convinced that he had become a commercial sell-out and had compounded his sins by desecrating the heroic tale that he originally sought to tell.
They railed against him for adding grating characters such as Jar Jar Binks to the prequel trilogy, which Lucas directed and which came out from 1999 to 2005. They attacked him for tinkering with the original trilogy that spanned 1977 to 1983, too. Revisions in special editions and home video releases _ such as making the Ewoks blink and having a green-skinned alien named Greedo take the first shot at Han Solo in a famous bar scene _ were treated as blasphemy.