Disney plans to exploit Star Wars galaxy

In a video message posted online this week shortly after Walt Disney announced its $4bn purchase of Lucasfilm, Bob Iger, Disney's chief executive, told viewers what the media group was getting for its money.

"Seventeen thousand characters that inhabit several thousand planets spanning 20,000 years," he said. Disney had not just bought the company behind Star Wars, one of the most lucrative film series ever released: it had also acquired a virtual "universe" of intellectual property, he said.

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are heading to the home of Mickey Mouse and The Avengers in a tie-up that strengthens Disney's vast intellectual property portfolio. The group already owns Pixar, the animation powerhouse behind films such as Toy Story, Up and The Incredibles. Disney bought it for $7.4bn in 2006: three years later Marvel's rich library of comic characters - including Spider-Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk - was brought into the fold in a $4bn deal.

And now Mr Iger has added Star Wars to the mix. "It's strategically brilliant," says Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG Research. "Disney is cornering the market on intellectual property that can be leveraged across movies, television, consumer products, theme parks and video games. Wall-E, meet R2-D2."

The worldwide success this year of The Avengers may have given Mr Iger the impetus he needed to finish talks that began 18 months ago with George Lucas, the founder of Lucasfilm, and seal the deal.

The Avengers, which has grossed $1.51bn worldwide, underscored the value of Disney's Marvel purchase - a deal which, back in 2009, was criticised by some analysts, who said Disney had overpaid. Doubts were dispelled when the film was released this summer, becoming the second highest grossing movie ever released, thanks to a vast, inbuilt audience of superhero aficionados.

Lucasfilm brings with it a similarly sized audience of passionate fans who are likely to turn out in droves to see seventh film in the Star Wars series, which Disney said this week it would release in 2015. A new trilogy will follow and possibly more films after that: the ready-made audience ensures that, with care, Star Wars should be a cash-cow for years to come.

If there is a message in the acquisition - or in any of the three multibillion dollar studio deals completed by Mr Iger since becoming chief executive - it is that he wants to minimise the risks associated with film-making, which is a notoriously expensive, risky business. The $7.4bn purchase of Pixar secured a library of intellectual property: pictures such as Toy Story that could yield toys and action figures and also sequels. The third film in the Toy Story series, released after Disney bought Pixar, became the highest-grossing animated film ever released, generating $1.06bn, according to the Internet Movie Database.

The purchase of Marvel also came after the company had proved its mettle at the box office, scoring with Iron Man and winning plaudits for its ability to deliver action-packed crowd-pleasers at an affordable price. The Avengers, produced by Marvel after the Disney acquisition, is spawning sequels: a second and third film are in the works while other sequels are also in the pipeline for Thor and Captain America. In each case, a ready-made audience is in place to turn out for the picture, propelling ancillary sales of toys and other consumer products.

That is Disney's hope for Lucasfilm and Star Wars. Only the eight Harry Potter films have earned more than the six films in the Star Wars series. The man responsible for shepherding the new Star Wars films from screenplay to screen is Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studio. He was, until fairly recently, the president and chief operating officer of Warner Brothers, where he oversaw the Harry Potter films. "First Iger snags Alan Horn this year, a master of the franchise film ... now he brings him one of the most powerful movie franchises to exploit," Mr Greenfield said.

The $4bn deal agreed by Disney and George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, and the owner of Lucasfilm, was financed with cash and shares: Disney will issue 40m new shares - equivalent to 2 per cent of the company - and pay Mr Lucas approximately $2bn in cash, making him the second largest individual Disney shareholder behind the holding held by the family of the late Steve Jobs and ahead of Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who has 25m shares.

Like the Marvel deal, the Lucasfilm acquisition was spurred by the prospect of consumer product sales. While the Marvel purchase was eventually considered a strategic and financial success the integration of its consumer products business with Disney's was not without problems. Several key staff left and a human resources complaint was made against Mr Perlmutter by a female Disney executive.

Yet the underlying intellectual property of Marvel and Pixar is powering Disney's bottom line, alongside contributions from its other businesses, such as the ESPN sports cable channel or the ABC-TV network. Mr Iger will hope the stories and characters of the Star Wars universe deliver a similar result.