Star Wars by the numbers: Why Disney has scored the deal of the century

Tomorrow the world: The Force Awakens is destined to set a swag of new records. Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd

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When Disney bought Lucasfilm for $US4.1 billion in October 2012, it got the deal of the century.

To the outside world it didn’t seem such a bargain at the time – there hadn’t been a new Star Wars film in seven years and the saga was apparently over – but George Lucas was already developing a new sequel trilogy when Disney came knocking.

JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which opens on Wednesday, may or may not bear much resemblance to the story Lucas had in mind, but it is just the first flowering of what promises to be an enormously bountiful crop for the House of the Mouse in years to come.

Disney’s plans for the series include not just the new trilogy – episodes VII, VIII and IX, to be released in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – but three other spin-off movies, to be released in 2016, 2018 and 2020 (the year the studio regains full rights to all but the first film, which is set to remain with Fox forever).

There are also major theme-park attractions planned, plus computer games, television series, books, comics, and – the jewel in the crown – official licensed merchandise.

To get a sense of how valuable merchandise might be, consider this: The six movies so far released have taken about $US4.4 billion ($6.1 billion) globally at the cinema. But, according to Chris Taylor, author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, about $US32 billion ($44.34 billion) worth of Star Wars merchandise has so far been sold.

In August, Macquarie Securities analyst Tim Nollen​ predicted merchandise linked to The Force Awakens could top sales of $5 billion in the first year alone. About $500 million of that will go to Disney in license fees.

Disney has put a “productive lifespan” of 40 years on the franchise. By the time it has eked the last dollar out of it, Star Wars will be almost 80 – older even than Harrison Ford, the 73-year-old returning as Han Solo after 30 years away from the series.

The Force Awakens is almost guaranteed to set records in Australia. The widest release to date here is Avengers: Age of Ultron, which opened earlier this year on 754 screens. Disney won’t say exactly how many screens Star Wars: The Force Awakens will open on, but industry sources suggest it is likely to be more than 900 – almost one in two of the country’s 2080 screens.

It will set a record for pre-sales, too: again, Disney is coy, but estimates have the figure north of $10 million.

The Force Awakens will almost certainly set a new record for opening weekend box office, too. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 holds that record, with $18.36 million in July 2011. (Incidentally, that’s almost as much as Star Wars made in its entire first run, which lasted more than a year as those limited prints slowly made their way around the country.)

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, it wasn’t simply buying a catalogue of movies. It was buying the rights to 17,000 characters, many of them so amenable to being moulded in plastic and sold to young children that the merchandise industry has a word for them: “toyetic”.

Disney was also buying the rights to an Expanded Universe that includes, writes Chris Taylor, “some 260 novels, dozens of short stories, 180 video games, more than 120 comic books”.

That universe will soon expand a little further, with at least two Star Wars Lands planned, at Disney’s theme parks in Anaheim California and Orlando Florida. Each promises to be a 14-acre “immersive environment” based on the worlds conjured in the new films. Visitors will meet bizarre creatures as they explore a hitherto unknown planet, do battle with Stormtroopers and “fly” the Millennium Falcon.

It is likely to be at least five years before those theme parks open. Until then, fans will have to keep dreaming, while Disney keeps counting the cash.

Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwin

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