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Disney Seeking Rich Deal For TV Rights to ‘Star Wars’ Movies

As “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” approaches $900 million at the domestic box office, Disney is looking to add significantly to its haul with the sale of free TV rights to a nine-movie “Star Wars” package.

Execs with Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution began a blitz of pitching prospective buyers last week that will extend into this week. Industry sources say Disney is hoping to nab some $30 million apiece for “Force Awakens” and the following two titles, “Episode VIII,” slated for 2017, and “Episode IX,” expected in 2019.

The asking prices for the six older titles in the series — which started in 1977 with “Star Wars” — is unclear but sources characterized it as it high, especially for vintage titles. It’s expected that the package will also include other non-“Star Wars” titles, yet there’s no question that the Force is the driving force in this package.

Among the cable outlets that are believed to have been pitched or scheduled to meet with Disney execs are Turner, FX Networks, Viacom, NBCUniversal (focusing on USA and Syfy), A+E Networks and AMC Networks.

A rep for Disney/ABC Home Entertainment declined to comment.

The “Star Wars” collection is the first movie package to stir up significant industry chatter among cable buyers in some time. Movies in general have become less of a hot commodity for broadcasters because they’re so widely available in the home via premium VOD, SVOD and online rental services. Those availabilities precede the home video and pay TV windows that kick in six- to 12 months after theatrical release. But as the most enduring titles remain a reliable source of ratings the demand for top-tier titles remains strong among the largest cablers. The appetite for content among SVOD players has also boosted the market for marquee studio titles.

Starz has the traditional pay TV rights to “Force Awakens” starting at the end of this year through its prior movie output deal with Disney. The title probably won’t hit free TV until 2018 at the earliest.

One wrinkle in the price considerations for “Episode VIII” and “Episode IX” is the Netflix factor. The next two “Star Wars” movies and other Disney theatrical releases will shift to Netflix for the traditional pay TV window, under the blockbuster output deal that Disney struck with Netflix in late 2012. That deal, valued at $300 million a year for Disney, covers the Mouse’s theatrical releases starting in 2016.

One industry veteran said there is sure to be some concern about how the Netflix’s 24/7 streaming availability will affect the exposure level of “Episode VIII” and “Episode IX” by the time they land in the free TV window.

The six older “Star Wars” pics will likely become available much earlier to free-TV buyers through the package now on the auction block. Those movies were most recently licensed by Viacom’s Spike TV in a six-year deal valued at $65-$70 million. The titles have been out of circulation on commercial TV since the Spike TV license expired in 2014.

In 2008, Paramount made the four “Indiana Jones” films available to free-TV as a package three months before the May 2008 release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Those titles were said to have nabbed about $25 million apiece in a sale to USA Network. But with the weaker numbers for most theatricals on commercial-TV, industry observers said $30 million apiece for multiple runs of the new “Star Wars” titles would be on the high end of market value.

Among seasoned movie buyers, there’s speculation that Disney/ABC’s aggressive pitch strategy may be a process of determining what the market will bear before setting a licensing pact with one or more of its internal networks such as ABC or Freeform (formerly ABC Family). If the new movies go to Disney-owned outlets, the Mouse would be vulnerable to self-dealing claims from profit participants without clear documentation of the value placed on the titles by outside networks.

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