George Lucas: the world’s most financially canny film maker

George Lucas' sale of Star Wars to Disney proves there's still money to be made in old franchises.

Star Wars has always divided the punters, as was apparent in the Twittersphere over the news that George Lucas, the obsessive father of the endless multi-trilogies, had sold out to Disney on hopes of continuing the franchise in perpetuity. "Oh good, Star Wars films forever", ran a despairing tweet from the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman. "I am now glad that the earth will one day be consumed by a flaming fireball."

Say what you like about Lucas, says The Economist, this deal "cements his reputation as the most financially canny film-maker alive". Disney is paying $4bn in cash and stock for his production company, Lucasfilm. The "entire bounty" goes to Lucas, 68, who owned 100% of the firm and now becomes one of Disney's largest shareholders (see below).

Securing the franchise's future with "the Mouse House" must be all the sweeter, given that he had already announced his retirement from Star Wars to pursue more artistic projects, says the Daily Mail. After a 40-year roller-coaster which has seen as many flops as triumphs, with Lucas becoming "an object of often-vicious ridicule" for his frequent remakes it is one hell of a way to bow out.

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Lucas was hailed as a cinematic visionary when the original Star Wars came out in 1977; and again in the early 1980s when he collaborated with director Stephen Spielberg to launch the Indiana Jones trilogy. But he has always been an awkward sort of chap, noted The Observer in 2002.

Visitors to his huge "Skywalker ranch" outside San Francisco the heart of the Star Wars empire have described him as "a begrudging sort of Prospero" who comes across "not as the ruler of a magical kingdom but something far more pedestrian, a hard-driving, small-town boy made good".

"I'm a 60s, West Coast, liberal, radical, artsy, dyed-in-the-wool 99 per center before there was such a thing" is how Lucas described himself to The New York Times earlier this year. He was born in Modesto, California, the son of a disciplinarian businessman, who imbued an abiding respect for hard work in his son, and an equal disdain for authority.

"An introverted, shy child, who found it difficult to relate to others", Lucas was mad about sci-fi comics and cinema, says The Observer. He defied his father to study film at university, winning a scholarship to Warner Brothers where he bonded with the studio wunderkind, Francis Coppola.

Both left Warner Brothers in bad grace Coppola to make The Godfather at Paramount; Lucas to achieve his first big hit, American Graffiti, at Universal. That gave him the wherewithal to spend two years writing his dream sci-fi good-versus-evil fable.

There were many skeptics when Star Wars landed in 1977: an early screening to studio chiefs and fellow directors ended with an embarrassed silence. Only Spielberg was supportive. "It's gonna make $100m", he announced. Good call.

Wringing billions from old franchises

George Lucas feels so strongly about his films that he compares having them re-edited by studios (as happened with his pre-Star Wars features) to "chopping a finger off one of your children", says Bryan Curtis in The New York Times. Unfortunately for him, many Star Wars "fanboys" feel exactly the same way. Hence the outrage that has often greeted the many prequels, "special editions" and new "director's cuts".

Many critics found it "unfathomable that the one American film maker rich enough to make what he liked was still clearly chained to a 30-year-old sci-fi fairy tale", says Robin Mckie in The Observer. Back in the 1970s, Lucas "stumbled on a rich formula mix innocent, comic-book adventure with lavish production values and never left it".

Given his revolutionary technical impact on film-making not to mention the billions Star Wars has collected at the box office and from licensing "toy droids, Sith Lord helmets and the rest" thank goodness Lucas stuck to his guns, says The Economist. As the success of the latest Bond film, Skyfall, shows: "there's plenty of life left in old franchises".

In 2005, when the last Star Wars film was released, Lucasfilm generated around $550m in operating profit. Disney is hoping for similarly vast rewards. Having already done very well from buying mega-franchises (Pixar Animation in 2006 and Marvel Entertainment in 2009), "Lucasfilm gives Disney material for fresh hits in tough times". As Yoda might have put it "Dollars, billions you will make". Arguably "the real prize", though, is Lucasfilm's technology. As one studio boss says, Hollywood today is "a special effects arms race".

Star Wars remains "the third-most-successful franchise at the box office, behind only Harry Potter and James Bond", says the LA Times. "No other firm is as well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity as Disney", according to RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank. Fans seem to agree Disney will breathe life into the franchise", says Lewis Wallace on