LOS ANGELES (AP) — A decade after George Lucas said "Star Wars" was finished on the big screen, a new trilogy is destined for theaters as The Walt Disney Co. announced Tuesday that it was buying Lucasfilm Ltd. 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 new trilogy will carry 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.
"For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next," said Lucas, chairman and CEO of Lucasfilm Ltd. "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."
Disney CEO Bob Iger said Lucusfilm had already developed an extensive story line on the next trilogy, and Episode 7 was now in early-stage development.
The Walt Disney Co. announced the blockbuster agreement to buy Lucasfilm in cash and stock Tuesday. 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.
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 released 3-D versions of all six films in the Star Wars franchise earlier this year.
Die-hard Star War 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 in the second trilogy and attacked him for tinkering with the original trilogy, too. Any revision — from little things like making the Ewoks blink or bigger alterations like making a green-skinned alien named Greedo take the first shot at Han Solo in a famous bar scene — were treated as blasphemy.
The criticism grated on Lucas, who vowed never to make another Star Wars movie during an interview with The New York Times earlier this year.
"Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?" Lucas told the Times.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the fourth film in another lucrative franchise, subjected Lucas to even more barbs when it came to the big screen in 2008. Fans of those films were especially outraged about an opening scene that featured Indiana Jones crawling into a lead-lined refrigerator to survive a nuclear bomb blasting.
Lucas, 68, was fed up by the time he released "Red Tails," a movie depicting the valor of African-American pilots during World War II, earlier this year. He told the Times he was ready to retire from the business of making blockbusters and return to his roots as a student at USC's film school, where he once made a movie about clouds moving in a desert.
Kathleen Kennedy, the current co-chairman of Lucasfilm, will become the division's president and report to Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn. She will serve as executive producer for the new movies.
In a video posted on YouTube, Lucas said the decision to continue with the saga wasn't inconsistent with past statements.
"I always said I wasn't going to do any more and that's true, because I'm not going to do any more, but that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to turn it over to Kathy to do more," Lucas said.
He said he has given Kennedy his story lines and other ideas, "and I have complete confidence that she's going to take them and make great movies."
Kennedy added that she and Lucas had discussed ideas with a couple of writers about the future movies and said Lucas would continue to have a key advisory role. "My Yoda has to be there," she said.
In a statement, Iger said the acquisition is a great fit and will help preserve and grow the "Star Wars" franchise.
"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 deal brings Lucasfilm under the Disney banner with other brands including Pixar, Marvel, ESPN and ABC, all companies that Disney has acquired over the years. A former weatherman who rose through the ranks of ABC, Iger has orchestrated some of the company's biggest acquisitions, including the $7.4 billion purchase of animated movie studio Pixar in 2006 and the $4.2 billion acquisition of comic book giant Marvel in 2009.
Disney shares were not trading with stock markets closed due to the impact of Superstorm Sandy in New York.