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HOOKING WAGON TO `STAR'; FOX SEEKS DEAL ON LUCAS' PREQUELS.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's domestic film operations, knows what he'll do when George Lucas comes to discuss distribution rights to the long-anticipated prequels in his ``Star Wars'' series.

``We'll lock the door and we won't let him out until we have a deal,'' he said this week.

Despite Sherak's mock desperation, Fox is the favorite to win in the next few months the rights to distribute the films.

What will Fox have to pay? ``That's unfathomable,'' said Arthur Rockwell, an entertainment analyst with Yaeger Capital Markers and a former studio executive. ``Obviously, Lucas has a lot of control, so that's going to mean a fairly low distribution fee for Fox and a pretty hefty commitment to prints and advertising.''

Industry trackers have said it's likely that Fox will reach an agreement, but also have speculated that should it fail to do so, Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks SKG are the most likely candidates to strike a deal with Lucas.

The thinking is that both studios highly prize family-entertainment properties and both have done business with Lucas previously - Disney with rides based on ``Star Wars'' at its theme parks and DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg from his association with Lucas on the Indiana Jones film series.

Fox handled the original ``Star Wars'' releases, which became the most successful franchise in Hollywood history, and Sherak was the studio's point man in the surprisingly strong performance of the reissues last winter. The campaign focused on the creation of new footage by Lucas, such as a scene involving the sluglike villain Jabba the Hutt, and slogans like, ``Three reasons why they build movie theaters'' and ``See it the way it was meant to be seen.''

Both Sherak and a Lucas spokeswoman agree that although no formal agreement exists, Lucas plans to meet first with Fox about the prequel rights. They also agree that no timetable exists yet, although studios have started taking up to a year to give the full-blast promotional treatment for major releases.

The rights are expected to be awarded within the next few months so the first of the new trilogy can meet Lucas' release date of May 1999.

Lucas is writing, directing and co-producing the project, and expects to finish principal photography in September at Leavesden Studios near London. Lucasfilm has confirmed that the project, set 40 years before the start of ``Star Wars,'' centers on the introduction of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi to a young Anakin Skywalker (known in the first ``Star Wars'' trilogy as Darth Vader, the father of Luke Skywalker).

Reshoots for the film, which carries the tentative title of ``Chapter 1,'' are expected to take place this year. Confirmed cast members include Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Daniels, who played the C3PO robot in the original trilogy.

Lucas is one of the nation's richest men and his entertainment empire is worth an estimated $5 billion. He formed Industrial Light & Magic in 1976 largely because he could not find anyone else to create the special effects he wanted and pioneered the motion-control technology seen in the battle sequences.

At the time, Lucas also gave up part of his director's salary in exchange for 40 percent of the net profits and ownership of the publishing, music, merchandising and sequel rights. Lucas then financed ``The Empire Strikes Back'' and ``Return of the Jedi'' and struck a deal for Paramount to finance the Indiana Jones trilogy while Lucas retained ownership of the movies.

Lucas reached deals in October with Hasbro and Galoob to sell the merchandising rights for toys and games based on the next three movies for a reported $235 million in stock, giving Lucas an estimated 5 percent of Hasbro and 20 percent of Galoob, according to Business Week. Lucas is expected to finance the new trilogy at a cost of $60 million to $70 million each.

Other speculation abounds about the projects. An Internet specialist in reporting on future films, www.corona.bc.ca/films, has reported that the script for the next movie reflects a darker atmosphere centering on themes of friendship, betrayal and the fall from grace into darkness.

``We know that Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, and that the Jedi Knights and the Old Republic were destroyed by the rise of the Emperor and the Empire, but now we get to see how it happened,'' predicts the site's authors.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, chart

PHOTO (color) Jedi producer George Lucas hopes to have the first ``Star Wars'' chapter since 1983's ``Return of the Jedi'' (above) in theaters in 1999.

Chart: A box office force
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 1998
Words:779
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