The force is still with George Lucas. Hollywood studios will vie early in 1998 for rights to distribute the long-anticipated "prequels" to his Star Wars films. In the works: a trio of features, starting with the story of Anakin Skywalker, which begins when the future Darth Vader is 8 and ends after he marries and fathers twins Luke and Leia.

Lucas already has cashed in with a multimillion-dollar promotional deal with PepsiCo for the first installment. And he is selling the merchandise rights to Hasbro and Galoob Toys for $235 million in stock--giving him an estimated 5% of Hasbro and 20% of Galoob.

Twentieth Century Fox Film has collected an estimated $636 million from the movies since the 1977 release of Star Wars. It's expected to get first crack at the new series, due to hit theaters in May, 1999. "This will not be a difficult decision to make," says Fox studio chief Bill Mechanic. Disney, which has rides based on Star Wars at its theme parks, is a long shot to get the flicks. Lucas pal Steven Spielberg also may bid on behalf of his DreamWorks SKG studio.

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