Star Wars is new money-spinner

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For millions of impatient fans around the world, the release date in December next year for the first film in a new Star Wars trilogy is a distant date in a galaxy far, far away.

But while there is more than a year to go before the return of one of the most iconic franchises in movie history, Disney is already reaping rewards from its acquisition of George Lucas' beloved science fiction saga.

Disney shelled out US$4 billion (S$5.1 billion) to buy Lucas' Lucasfilm in October 2012 and with it the rights to add the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader to the company's cast of iconic characters.

While the headline-grabbing centrepiece of the deal was a commitment to make a new trilogy of Star Wars blockbusters, Disney is already generating returns from an avalanche of products ranging from spin-off television shows to toy lightsabers.

The animated series Star Wars Rebels premiered on Disney television last Friday while a video-game for smartphones and tablets Star Wars Commander was rolled out last August.

Disney has also announced plans for a "far greater Star Wars presence" in its global chain of theme parks.

Its willingness to exploit its properties for maximum financial gain is hardly a new strategy.

Yet it has been perfected under the stewardship of company chief Robert Iger, who has been in charge of Disney since 2005.

Disney earned US$9 billion in net profits in the nine months leading to late June, returns which helped earn Mr Iger a lucrative contract extension announced last week which runs until mid-2018.

"It's definitely one of his legacies to the company," said Mr Neil Macker, a media analyst with the Morningstar investment research group.

"Keeping brands alive within the Disney universe, parks and resorts, merchandising, the stores, everything like that - that's something he and his team have done, basically," he said. "I think now they have got the process down on how they can monetise these properties relatively well.

"You've seen the benefits in what they've done with Marvel and Pixar," he added, referring to the Iger-led acquisitions which added money-spinning properties such as Iron Man, Captain America and Toy Story to the Disney stable.

With Star Wars, just as it has done with Marvel's superheroes, Disney is able to appeal to a broader, older audience as well as children, expanding beyond the realm of Mickey Mouse and fairy tales.

It also remains adept at catering to its traditional audience - last year's Oscar-winning movie Frozen has become the highest-earning animated film in history, with more than US$1 billion at the box office.

"One of the things that Mr Iger's done is moving Disney from being dependent on all of these older characters, that had a very deep history with them, for new characters, new content and use all of them to create more and more content, that can be turned into rights, or merchandising, or probably musicals," Mr Macker added.

By designing and distributing its own products, Disney avoids having to pay a portion of its profits to intermediaries.

But not everything in the Disney garden is rosy, according to some.Disneyland Paris remains mired in financial difficulties, with losses of €64.4 million (S$103 million) last year and a huge drop in visitors.

On television, Disney's ABC network needs new flagship series to rebound while sports channel ESPN faces increasingly tough competition to secure broadcasting rights to top events.

Even in the movie business, Disney is, in the words of studio chief Alan Bergman, "not immune to flops" who cites the recent box-office duds John Carter (2012) and The Lone Ranger (2013).

The new Star Wars film due next year will be directed by J.J. Abrams, who oversaw the successful rebooting of the Star Trek franchise.

Yet as with any reboot, there are risks.

Mr Macker noted that many die-hards remain unimpressed by Lucas' second trilogy of Star Wars films released between 1999 and 2005.

He added: "A lot of fans are still mad at Lucas for what he did in the prequels, so it's not something that can be run perfectly - but they're doing as good a job as they can."

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