'Star Wars' plan in works

Disney's plans to make a trio of "Star Wars" movies has set off a frenzy of speculation over what that series will look like. But even as fans offer their emotional reactions to the news of the movies — and their pleas for who should direct them — the die is already being cast.

In the months before Disney announced it would acquire "Star Wars" studio Lucasfilm, several different screenwriters paid visits to Lucasfilm's Northern California compound to pitch George Lucas and his co-chair Kathleen Kennedy their ideas for the new live-action installment, the series' seventh, according to a person familiar with the talks who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about them. The screenwriters were pitching ideas for a new story, not ones adapted from existing "Star Wars" books.

The person did not reveal the identities of the people who had met with Lucas and Kennedy but said they were well-known screenwriters with experience creating big-budget Hollywood films. A spokeswoman for Lucasfilm on Wednesday did not return a call seeking comment.

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On Tuesday, Disney announced that it would spend $4.05 billion to acquire Lucasfilm and continue the "Star Wars" saga, which to date has yielded six live-action movies and $4.31 billion in worldwide box office. The most recent, "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith," came out in 2005 and, despite a critical mauling, became the second highest-grossing movie of the franchise (not adjusting for inflation).

That movie, along with two other prequels, created a filmgoer backlash, satisfying some fans but leaving many longing for more visionary filmmaking. That has led to a tension between fans over the direction of the series, with many reacting to Tuesday's news online by saying that the franchise needs a wholesale reinvention (or not to be touched at all), while others expressed their desire that the franchise continue in its recent directions.

The first of the new films is set to come out in 2015, with two more movies following approximately in 2017 and 2019, Disney executives said. Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo told analysts there was already a "treatment" for the movies but did not specify whether that came from Lucas or an outside writer.

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The announcement prompted speculation over who might direct the movies. Perhaps the most bandied-about name among fans, Christopher Nolan, also seems like a long shot. Though he made his "Batman" films at Warner Bros. under Alan Horn, who now runs Disney, the director has a long-standing relationship with Warners that could make a jump to Disney awkward. He also has expressed his interest in not concentrating on reboots of tentpole-style projects at this stage of his career.

Whatever direction they move in, Disney and Lucasfilm will need to move fast. A 2015 release target means that significant development progress would need to happen in 2013, and many of the industry's splashiest genre names — including J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon — have a dance card filled with new movies.

A Disney home for "Star Wars" is a shift for the franchise, which since its inception in 1977 has never fully resided at a studio. (20th Century Fox distributed the live-action films but did not have large amounts of creative input.) Still, some Hollywood insiders contacted by The Times noted that Disney has been relatively hands-off in its other recent acquisitions. It has, for instance, allowed Pixar chief John Lasseter and Marvel production head Kevin Feige wide berth in shaping their movies.

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Horn also has a reputation as a filmmaker-friendly executive who creatively stayed more hands-off than some of his rivals. "I don't think Disney will be a deterrent for anyone," said a representative of several top directors who has worked both with Horn and Disney.

Disney does have a mixed record when it comes to sci-fi epics, and in recent years has stumbled badly under the regime preceding Horn's. The flops included "Mars Needs Moms" and "John Carter." "Tron: Legacy" was only a mediocre performer.

What creative direction the story takes remains to be seen. The story of lightsabers and storm troopers reached a natural conclusion in 1983's "Return of the Jedi" with the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader. The movie was the final film, chronologically, in a six-movie arc telling the story of Anakin Skywalker, who would become Darth Vader.

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A host of tie-in books have also been written, with the most fundamental among them regarded as "Star Wars canon," a phrase that highlights the religious aura around the franchise. Author Timothy Zahn penned a sequel trilogy of books that are considered part of this canon; in its first installment, set five years after "Return of the Jedi," Luke Skywalker and company rebuild as a new evil emerges. But the new movies will likely not be taking their cues from those novels.

Lucas, 68, will not be directing the film, instead serving in the more nebulous role of "consultant." Historically, Lucas has kept tight reins on the "Star Wars" movies and brand, overseeing even minute production and licensing details.

But he intimated in a statement that the sale to Disney was part of a process of stepping back. "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," he said.

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Lucas' recent hiring of Kennedy to run Lucasfilm could be seen as part of that transition process; Kennedy is a veteran Hollywood producer who has a history of working with decorated directors such as David Fincher and Steven Spielberg (she produced this fall's awards contender "Lincoln").

While the prospect of taking over one of Hollywood's most sacred franchises would be daunting for big-name filmmakers — particularly if Lucas sought to keep a strong hand in it — these filmmakers might be encouraged by the fact that the most recent movies were not well-received by fans, setting the bar lower.

The news of a new series of films is a reversal for Lucas, who has long expressed the belief that the saga would not continue past the six live-action films that had previously been made. At a news conference for "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" in 1999, Lucas said he did not want to continue the series. "I will not do VII, VIII and IX," he said then. He added that no one else will make the movies either. "This is it. This is all there is," he said.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

john.horn@latimes.com

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