The Force is strong with Disney's Lucasfilm buy

With its $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, Disney adds the storied Star Wars franchise to its universe.

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Fans in Orlando clad in Princess Leia's metal bikini with a Jabba the Hutt model

The collective effect of Lucasfilm's announced sale to Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500) was not unlike the planet-size explosion caused by the Death Star in the original Star Wars: Minds were blown. Not only will the family-friendly firm control the crown jewel of nerddom -- who knew it was even for sale? -- but the first of a new batch of Star Wars films is already due in 2015.

The move fits into Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger's strategy: Buy winners, leave them alone, then wring greater profits from them by running content through the company's massive international distribution network, including its cable channel. In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, a deal that resulted in this year's $1.5 billion blockbuster The Avengers. Three years earlier, Disney bought Pixar Animation Studios, maker of Toy Story, for $7.4 billion. "I'm going to do this one the same way," Iger told Fortune.com.

Lucasfilm will furnish Disney with a trove of valuable material at a time when only the most recognizable franchises -- your James Bonds or Batmans -- are certain to turn a profit. This summer, box-office revenues fell for the first time in seven years, to $4.27 billion, down 3% compared with last year. Worse, the number of tickets sold shrank to about 532 million, down 4% from summer 2011 -- the smallest audience movies have attracted since 1993 during their busiest months. Disney, like all studios, is forced to place fewer bets. A bet on films with an already avid fan base is smart.

And Star Wars has something even more powerful behind it: dads (and moms). When the first film of the second trilogy came out in 1999, ticket lines were packed with parents who had been fans in their youth, introducing the series to their sons and daughters. Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian says it was one of the greatest "transgenerational marketing moments" in history. (There is a thriving world of web videos and blogs dedicated to advising parents on introducing their kids to the franchise.) Fan conferences like the Star Wars Celebration, photographed above and in the following gallery, attract tens of thousands of devotees and are prime grounds for indoctrination.

As for the timing of the deal, Lucas says he is donating the proceeds to charity. With Lucas acting as executive producer, could Christopher Nolan, who rebooted the Batman franchise, or J.J. Abrams, who remade Star Trek, be lured to direct? There is a precedent. The most critically acclaimed of all the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back, was not directed by Lucas.

  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated November 30 2012 06:47 AM ET
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