George Lucas signs with Fox -- The studio will distribute the next three ''Star Wars'' films

King of the world, eh? Big deal. George Lucas is emperor of the universe. His highness James Cameron forfeited his director’s fee to make Titanic his way, but last week Lucas, the Force behind Star Wars, signed a deal with Twentieth Century Fox that guarantees him control over the next three Jedi flicks — and could earn him enough to buy his own Death Star. The deal ended months of speculation about which studio would stamp its logo on the most anticipated movies in history.

Still, the suspense ended with more of a sigh than a bang. After all, Fox put out the first three epics from 1977 to 1983 and successfully handled the release of the Special Editions last year — not a factor to be taken lightly given Lucas’ sense of loyalty. ”[Our] relationship has always been strong,” says studio chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic. ”That’s why he came to us first. George knows this studio will take care of those films. There were never really [other] contenders.”

Maybe not, but there were suitors. ”George did shop it around a bit” and had ”a few preliminary discussions,” says a distribution chief at a rival studio. ”But that’s just smart business.” Indeed, everyone knew Lucas held all the cards — in order to keep control of the rights (and profits) to the prequels, Lucas will fund the productions with his own cash, with Fox simply acting as a distributor. According to sources, Fox agreed to take a much smaller distribution fee than normal: 7.5 percent of box office receipts, as opposed to the standard 12 to 17 percent. Another source says Lucas — who also maintains merchandising and toy rights — could make upwards of $1 billion on the deal. (Fox declined to comment on specific figures.)

On the downside, Fox might want to cut ”Twentieth Century” from its name: While the first prequel — budgeted at $115 million, and starring Ewan McGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi — will swoop into theaters next May, nobody will see the other two until the 21st century.