New Star Wars movies expected as Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4bn
Star Wars creator George Lucas has sold his Lucasfilm empire to Disney in a deal worth just over $4bn.
The purchase means fans can look forward to "Episode 7" in the science fiction franchise some time in 2015.
Numbers eight and nine will also be pushed into development, with a view to hitting cinemas at two to three-year intervals.
Lucas, 68, said it was time for him to retire from the day-to-day running of his business, although he will serve as "creative consultant" on the next movie. As sole owner of Lucasfilm, he will receive $4.05bn (£2.53bn) in cash and shares.
"For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next," Lucas said in a statement.
"It's now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I've always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime."
As part of the deal, one of Lucas's longstanding associates, Kathleen Kennedy, will remain President of Lucasfilm. She will also be Executive Producer of the new movie, with responsibility for the all-important business of hiring a screenwriters and director.
It remains unclear where the next instalment in the blockbuster series will pick up.
Technically, it should follow 1983's Return of the Jedi, which was the third of the movies to be released but is sixth in Lucas's chronological series. However the death of Darth Vader at will leave the franchise without its major villain.
Either way, Disney is counting on the enduring loyalty of fans to recoup its vast investment. They continue to purchase merchandise in huge quantities and have ignored lacklustre reviews to turn all three of the modern Star Wars "prequels" into hits. The company's Chief Executive, Bob Iger, said in a statement: "The last Star Wars movie release was 2005's Revenge of the Sith, and we believe there's substantial pent-up demand. This transaction combines a world-class portfolio of content including Star Wars, one of the greatest family entertainment franchises of all time, with Disney's unique and unparalleled creativity."
Mr Iger now presides over a corporation which controls such creative goldmines as Marvel and Pixar, as well as Disney's animation and live-action arms. The firm also has substantial interests in theme parks, toy-making and merchandise, along with sports broadcaster ESPN and TV network ABC.
The sale encompasses Lucasfilm's production business, along with its special effects and audio arms, and consumer products unit. It therefore offers scope for serious business synergies: Pixar has long made use of production facilities at the company's Skywalker ranch outside San Francisco, for example.
And Disney may choose to merge Lucasfilm's consumer products unit with its own merchandise operation.
The Lucas touch
American Graffiti (1973) A high-school coming of age film was hugely influential and heavily profitable, taking more than $20m on a budget of less than $1m
Star Wars (1977) The landmark sci-fi film led to a movie franchise that has so far notched up revenues of $4bn
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Pairing with director Stephen Spielberg, Lucas brought about a near $2bn-earning series centred around the action-adventure archaeologist
Labyrinth (1986) It has achieved cult status, thanks not least to the casting of David Bowie, but the fantasy film only recovered half its budget in ticket sales
Howard the Duck (1986) Widely regarded by critics as one of the worst films ever made, its box office takings only just scraped above its $35m budget
Red Tails (2012) The most recent movie from the Lucas stable, about Mustang pilots in the Second World War, made back just $58m of its $60bn budget