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This 1980 publicity image originally released by Lucasfilm Ltd. shows Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and the character Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Walt Disney Co. has purchased perhaps the biggest science fiction movie franchise of all time, adding to a stable that includes Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse and, now, Luke Skywalker.

Disney will purchase the movie production company Lucasfilm Ltd., which was founded and is owned by George Lucas, for $4.05-billion (U.S.) in cash and shares. The deal gives Disney access to several studios and businesses that are considered among the best in their fields, such as special effects shop Industrial Light & Magic.

But Disney's interest in Lucasfilm was prompted by a single opportunity. "Our valuation focused almost entirely on the Star Wars franchise," said Disney chief financial officer Jay Rasulo, adding that the series will provide the company with content "for years to come."

Already, that content is on its way to theatres. In acquiring Lucasfilm, Disney bought the screen treatments for three more Star Wars movies. Mr. Rasulo said the first instalment – Episode Seven – is set for release in 2015. After that, Disney will release a new Star Wars movie every two or three years, he added.

Since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, the franchise has gained popularity to the point of worldwide recognition. Even though Mr. Lucas generated enormous wealth off the franchise by securing a portion of the various merchandising and marketing opportunities associated with the film, his decision in 1999 to release three more Star Wars instalments was met with derision from some fans and critics, who saw the new movies as a betrayal of the original trilogy.

Nonetheless, the more recent films still generated billions of dollars, and it is likely that future Disney-produced instalments will do just as well.

The movies themselves are only a part of Disney's strategy. The company also plans to greatly expand the Star Wars merchandising empire, both domestically and overseas. Given Disney's world-famous theme parks, its acquisitions of TV stations ABC and ESPN, the comics book company Marvel and the animation studio Pixar, it will likely launch myriad other Star Wars–related projects in the coming years.

For Mr. Lucas, the sale marks the unofficial end of one of the most lucrative film-making careers in history.

Around the release of his Second World War feature Red Tails early this year, Mr. Lucas made it known in several media interviews that he was considering leaving the world of big-budget Hollywood cinema to focus on more experimental, independent films. With the sale of Lucasfilm, Mr. Lucas now frees himself from the burden of managing his biggest-budget movies, which themselves have grown to become mini-industries.

"It's now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers," Mr. Lucas said in a statement. "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 Robert Iger said he and Mr. Lucas had first discussed a possible sale a year and a half ago. Mr. Iger said Mr. Lucas will serve as a consultant to Disney for some time, and has already provided extensive advice about the next Star Wars movie, but ultimately, "it's his intent to retire."

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