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Disney's Media Empire Strikes Back with Star Wars

With Marvel, Cuneo said the company's decision to use motion pictures to breathe new life into its comic-book characters is a reason why Disney is now seeing benefits from its ownership, marked by a record-setting Avengers release, and a new set of movie opportunities.

In the case of Lucasfilm, Star Wars gives Disney control of internationally recognizable characters to many generations that could fuel growth in non-movie businesses like theme parks, outside of the $4 billion the movie franchise has already earned globally.

Already, by way of licensing agreements, Star Wars content can be seen in Disney theme parks in Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Tokyo.

But Disney isn't just getting Star Wars. Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound units are on the cutting edge in live-action film production, animation, visual effects, and audio post production. Disney will also acquire what it calls a "substantial portfolio of cutting-edge entertainment technologies."

Meanwhile, Lucasfilm is being handed off to Disney at a mature stage in its growth, similar to the Pixar and Marvel acquisitions.

"For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next," Lucas said in a statement. "It's now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers," the filmmaking pioneer added.

When Pixar was sold to Disney, the company's head, Steve Jobs, was free to focus his efforts on turning Apple (AAPL) into the most valuable company in the U.S. Meanwhile, as Cuneo of Marvel told TheStreet, its thousand-plus portfolio of comic-book characters like Spiderman andThe Incredible Hulk was worth more in the hands of Disney to develop.

While Iger can look at near-record share prices and faster-than-industry-average earnings growth as validation of his tenure as Disney's CEO, buying Lucasfilm at a time when Pixar and Marvel are just beginning to deliver big returns may prove Lucasfilm to be a pivotal deal. Most media CEOs have been bitten by ambition, and there's no reason to think Iger can't be next.

From 2000 to 2009, the largest media conglomerates like Time Warner, News Corp. and Viacom, among others, wrote down $200 billion in assets as a result of bad acquisitions and misguided "strategic" investments, according to The Curse of the Mogul, a sweeping study on why an overstretch of C-suite ambition has destroyed shareholder value throughout the industry.

Under Iger, Disney's empire is striking back against those who've written off the media conglomerate and Star Wars may complete a trilogy of M&A winners.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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