By Ronald Grover and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Walt Disney Co is ramping up its first major push to promote the “Star Wars” franchise it purchased from George Lucas in 2012, blitzing consumers this year with a mobile game, animated TV show and an expanded line of toys and clothes.
The anticipated rush of light sabers, Wookiees and other “Star Wars” mainstays is Disney’s attempt to cash in on its $4.05 billion acquisition of LucasFilm, which gave the company a popular yet aging franchise that has not produced a new feature film in nine years.
On Thursday the company introduced “Star Wars: Commander,” a free mobile app that lets players direct battles with franchise heroes Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia.
It is available exclusively for 30 days through Apple Inc’s App Store and later on Google Inc’s Android devices. Disney generates revenue by selling a currency known as crystals that can be used to speed up game play.
On Sept. 29, the company will release computer-animated movie “Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion” online and on the Watch Disney XD app. The film debuts on Disney Channels around the world on Oct. 3, followed by a series based on the movie on the Disney XD channel starting Oct. 13.
This week, retailers began selling toys, bedding, backpacks and other products tied to the series, expanding the range of “Star Wars” items previously available. A line of “Star Wars”-branded healthy foods will hit shelves next year.
The game will be promoted on Disney’s StarWars.com website, which is drawing steady traffic from fans more than a year before the next film, “Episode VII,” hits theaters, said Jimmy Pitaro, president of Disney’s interactive unit.
“We are still a decent amount of time from the movie, and yet we are seeing a huge amount of interest,” Pitaro said.
It remains to be seen if “Star Wars” will be as much a draw as a couple decades ago.
But the campaign is representative of Disney’s strategy of banking on acquired names. This year, retailers generated $1 billion in sales from each of eight Disney’s franchises, including Marvel’s Spider-Man and Pixar movie “Cars,” Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger has said.
The company says will release a film annually starting with “Episode VII.” It also plans to “significantly” increase the space adventure’s presence at its theme parks, Iger said during an Aug. 5 earnings call.
Although Iger didn’t disclose how the company intends to use “Star Wars” at its parks, in 2012 it tapped another franchise when it opened a 12-acre Cars Land, based on the 2006 Pixar film, at Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim.
“This is one of those franchises you just can’t overexpose,” said Peter Sealey, former head of marketing at Columbia Pictures. “You just put the metal to the floor and enjoy the ride.”
(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Editing by Edwin Chan and Cynthia Osterman)