By Piya Sinha-Roy and Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For years, it seemed like another "Star Wars" movie was just a dream, stillborn in a galaxy far, far away.
But down on Earth, the Walt Disney movie studio had different ideas, announcing on Tuesday that it planned not one but at least three new "Star Wars" movies, starting in three years' time.
Disney's $4 billion acquisition of George Lucas' Lucasfilm and the multibillion-dollar "Star Wars" franchise surprised investors and caused mixed reactions among movie fans, many of whom had little appetite for more Luke Skywalkers and Jedis.
"The series had stagnated creatively. This could go well...Or not," said Facebook user Chris Goodson.
Another user, Peter Campbell, voiced his disbelief, asking, "Is this for real? Oh please, enough with the Star Wars movies."
Lucas, whose imagination gave pop culture Princess Leia and her crazy cinnamon-bun hairstyle, the anti-hero Darth Vader and the catch phrase "May The Force Be With You," has insisted for years that he would make no more than the three original films and three prequels.
Lucas has often expressed frustration with criticism from many avid "Star Wars" fans who have taken issue with his director's cuts of the films.
"Why would I make any more," Lucas told the New York Times in a January interview about the "Star Wars" movies, "when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?"
But seven years after the last picture, "Revenge of the Sith," Disney said on Tuesday it saw room for "Star Wars Episode 7" in 2015, with Episodes 8 and 9 to follow at two or three year intervals.
Some fans welcomed the prospect of new films. On the Facebook "Star Wars" page, user David Schmoyer said "it brings dreaming back to the place where many of us began to dream."
Others were less happy. User Andreas Pedersen called it "the worst April Fools' joke ever," while another fan, Brandan Sullivan, said "this might be the death of Star Wars."
"People don't seem to be recognizing that taking Star Wars out of George Lucas' hands is the best possible thing for the franchise," Jesse Taylor counter-argued on Twitter.
HAN SOLO, R2-D2, MICKEY AND MINNIE
In addition to new films, characters like Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi may find a home on the Disney XD cable TV channel, targeted at young boys.
Furthermore, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger told reporters on a conference call that there was "ample opportunity" to extend the franchise in Disney's global theme parks, cementing the place of R2-D2 and Han Solo alongside Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid.
"Cool for another Star Wars but not sure I like Disney backing it," commented Janel Halstead on Facebook.
The "Star Wars" franchise has earned some $4.4 billion at the global box office since the first film was released in 1977, making it the third most successful movie property after "Harry Potter" and the "James Bond" series.
Like the boy wizard and the suave British secret agent, "Star Wars" has also spawned an empire of books, games and toys so large that it is often dubbed the "Expanded Universe."
It has also inspired a mini-industry dedicated to examining philosophical, spiritual and mythical themes, with many observers seeing Luke Skywalker as an embodiment of Jesus Christ and some seeing Yoda as inspired by a Mormon prophet.
Lucas, 68, said in a video posted on the StarWars.com website on Tuesday that he had story treatments for Episodes 7, 8 and 9 that he would hand over to producer Kathleen Kennedy to develop in partnership with Disney.
In the same video, Kennedy said Disney was the "best company possible to take Star Wars into the future," and assured Lucas that she would adhere to his creations.
"The main thing is to protect these characters to make sure they continue to live in the way you created them," Kennedy said.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Jim Loney)