LUCAS
Eric Risberg  /  AP file
Producer-director George Lucas, who turns 61 Saturday, says he is happy to be free of "Star Wars" now that the final episode of the second trilogy of films is complete.
By Martin Wolk Chief economics correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/12/2005 5:07:24 PM ET 2005-05-12T21:07:24

With five movies, more than $3 billion in ticket sales and perhaps another $9 billion in sales of everything from DVDs to Darth Vader masks, “Star Wars” easily ranks as the most successful film franchise ever.

So is the sixth episode in the double trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith,” really, really the end?

If it were any other series, you could be pretty sure that sometime down the road, maybe in, oh, 16 years or so, we could look forward to Episodes 7, 8, 9.

But because of a business deal that was either the luckiest or most brilliant in Hollywood history, the future of the franchise is in the hands of one man. And that man, producer-director-writer George Lucas, has made it emphatically clear that he has no plans to make another feature film, let alone another episode in his 28-year-old magnum opus.

“There have been a lot of farewells,” he told USA Today in a recent interview. “But it's time to move on."

It is hard to overstate the importance of the deal Lucas cut with distributor Twentieth Century Fox nearly three decades ago, when he was a young, up-and-coming director with the single hit movie “American Grafitti” to his credit. Desperate for income to build the technical facilities he needed to realize his special-effects vision, Lucas reportedly accepted a $500,000 reduction in his directing fee in exchange for rights to all sequels and ancillary revenues from “Star Wars.”

Sequels were not exactly unknown at the time, which was not long after “The Godfather: Part 2” won the Academy Award for best picture in 1975.  But nobody, perhaps outside Lucas, saw the blockbuster potential for “Star Wars.”

As for the ancillary rights, their value hardly could have been dreamt of at a time when VCRs were in their infancy and there were no DVDs, product placements, pay-per-view or fast-food promotional tie-ins. Nor was there any precedent for movies to be used as a vehicle to sell toys, trading cards, T shirts and all the other paraphernalia that are now routine for big-brand franchise movies.

As a result of that long-ago deal, Twentieth Century Fox gets a distribution fee for its involvement in “Episode III” which it declined to disclose, but is not involved in the financing of the film, nor does it participate in the “upside” profits after the movie recovers its production costs.

Lucas and his Lucasfilm production company retain sole control over the future of “Star Wars,” unlike venerable big-screen characters like Spider-Man, Batman and James Bond that are controlled by publicly owned companies. Those entertainment giants, with their unslakable thirst for dependable revenue, are a driving force behind Hollywood’s craze for sequels and certainly would be unlikely to shelve a megabrand like “Star Wars.”

While it is impossible to rule out future “Star Wars” sequels, especially if Lucasfilm were to go public or Lucas were no longer on the scene, for now the director, who turns 61 on Saturday, intends to go in a new direction.

But even if there are no more feature films, that does not mean the valuable brand will sit on the shelf. Lucas announced last month that he plans a live-action television series based on characters from his six movies that will go into production next year. And he plans a “3D animated” series of shows based on the short “Clone Wars” episodes that have been shown on Cartoon Network.

''I don't want to be Pixar,” Lucas told The New York Times, referring to the animation studio and its need for megahits. “'I'm trying to build a company where we don't make miracles but we do a good job.”

If anything, Lucas has stepped up his marketing and merchandising efforts for the final episode in the movie series, releasing video games well in advance of the May 19 opening of “Sith.” For the first time Lucas has even unleashed his characters for third-party promotions unrelated to the movie, allowing Chewbacca to sell phone service, Jedi master Yoda to hawk Pepsi and the evil Darth Vader to promote M&Ms made with dark chocolate (get it?).

“That is the sort of thing more traditional blockbuster event pictures do,” said movie industry analyst Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo. “Although only ‘Star Wars’ is able to be ubiquitous with it, given its vast array of characters that everyone is familiar with.”

“It’s not a franchise — Star Wars is a world unto itself,” said Robert Bucksbaum, owner of two independent movie theaters and president of ReelSource, which analyses box-office results.

“The last two movies I thought were terrible,” he said. “But the fans are so loyal that they are going to go no matter what. The best part of it is he’s ending it on this note, and it is an amazing movie. It is so far above the last two it’s going to propel him into the stratosphere.”

Not everyone agrees, although the early reviews for “Revenge of the Sith” have been largely positive. Some analysts worry that the tone and ending of the movie are so dark that some moviegoers will be repelled. And many parents will leave their children home due to the first PG-13 rating of the series.

But already some analysts are projecting the film will clear $350 million in domestic box-office revenue, which would put it into the all-time top 10, although still well below the first three movies when inflation is taken into account.

With overseas revenues, the Star Wars franchise eventually could top $4 billion at the box office. And that is not even counting sales of toy light sabers, Wookie “bowcasters” and hand-painted animation cels.

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