At the Dec 14 world premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in Hollywood, the audience gave a standing ovation to George Lucas, since there would be no “Star Wars” without him. However, this is the first film he wasn’t directly involved in. But while “Star Wars” itself is an integral part of Hollywood’s DNA, Lucas himself remains the ultimate Hollywood insider/outsider. Variety first mentioned him on Jan. 9, 1968, when he scored three nominations in the third annual National Student Film Fest competition. Out of 153 entries and 46 finalists, Lucas had “6-18-67” (“A Desert Poem”); the docu “The Emperor,” and, in the dramatic competition, the sci-fi short “THX-1138 4EB.” He won for “THX.” But for the next few years, it wasn’t a smooth ride.
Francis Coppola mentored Lucas, helping him land a deal for a 1971 feature version of “THX” at Warner Bros-Seven Arts. The box office was low and Coppola challenged him to create something for mainstream audiences. So Lucas started “American Graffiti.” Universal execs weren’t enthused about the screenplay (by Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz) but liked the idea of a soundtrack using rock hits from the era (the film centered on high school grads in 1962). Universal agreed to a budget of $750,000.
Directly to television
With its dim lighting of car interiors and its low-budget look, Universal film execs hated it and considered releasing it directly to television. But two previews with young audiences convinced them to reconsider. The film earned $115 million domestically, a huge return on a minor investment, and earned Oscar nominations for picture, director, screenplay, editing (Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas) and supporting actress (Candy Clark). Lucas parlayed his success with “Graffiti” into an amazing deal with Fox. He got 40% of the “Star Wars” profits and retained ownership of the movie, its sequels and the merchandise. In retrospect, it’s easy to wonder if the Fox execs were insane, but long-running movie franchises were not that common, and successful merchandising seemed limited to animated characters. With the success of “Star Wars” merchandise, studios quickly learned that the formula could work for other films, including live-action ones.
“Star Wars” and Steven Spielberg’s 1975 “Jaws” are often credited with creating the blockbuster mentality of wide releases and heavy marketing. But Lucas’ contributions to Hollywood were bigger than that. First, he showed the industry how to rethink movies as a starting point for video games, theme-park attractions, TV animation and, of course, merchandise. And he helped change the way movies are made. Before “Star Wars,” visual effects were usually created with miniatures, but he helped move things into digital with Industrial Light & Magic (founded in 1975). He also created THX (which the company describes as “next-generation surround sound”) and built up Pixar (which started out as a high-end computer hardware company, before it revolutionized feature animation).
Lucas was born and raised in Modesto, California, obsessed with cars and racing, and wanted to pursue a career in that area. On June 12, 1962, just as he was graduating from Thomas Downey High School, his Fiat was hit by another car; Lucas was thrown out of the car when his seat belt snapped. The Fiat crashed into a tree and if he had remained inside he almost certainly would have died. In the book “Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas,” he told biographer Dale Pollock: “You can’t have that kind of experience and not feel that there must be a reason why you’re here.” Instead of a life devoted to cars, he enrolled in Modesto Junior College and then film school.
Though friends were skeptical of each move, Lucas trusted his instincts-which served him well when “Star Wars” similarly inspired skepticism. Outer-space movies were not a proven box-office success, and Hollywood in the 1970s was more interested in introspective pieces like Coppola’s “Godfather” films. So Fox was a little surprised at the level of “Star Wars” success.
Despite the success, Lucas was angry at the entire Hollywood system, tired of dealing with hostile or indifferent studio executives, lawyers and agents. So he again defied conventional wisdom, creating a film center first in Northern California’s Marin County, then at the Presidio in San Francisco. In 1981, Lucas cited “personal reasons” for withdrawing from the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. An April 6, 1981, Variety banner story read “Lucas Severs Last H’wood Ties” (though Lucasfilm remained a signatory to both).
Lucas was unhappy with the DGA, which had fined him because Irvin Kershner’s director credit was at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” instead of at the beginning of the film, as the DGA contract specified. Lucas wanted to thrust the audience immediately into the action, and Kershner was OK with the end-credit placement. Lucas doesn’t hang out in LA and doesn’t go to a lot of industry events. But when he does attend, it creates a stir; the standing ovation at the “Star Wars” premiere was a reminder that, in a town full of celebrities and power-brokers, he’s still in a category all by himself.-Reuters