“Everybody has talent. It’s just a matter of moving around until you’ve discovered what it is.”
Lucas was born on May 14, 1944 in Modesto, California. He did not excel in high school, but dreamed of being a race car driver. A serious car accident that collapsed his lungs and kept him in the hospital for three months changed his mind about his career choice. He decided then to stop living dangerously, work hard and try to make something of himself.
At Modesto Junior College, Lucas became enamoured with cinematography and settled on becoming a filmmaker. He was accepted to the University of Southern California and Lucas’ life was suddenly immersed in film. While at school, he worked on documentaries and made abstract science fiction films (one of which, “THX-1138”, would be remade with Warner Brothers’ backing and released in 1971). These early films were seen and praised by Francis Ford Coppola who in turn invited Lucas to sit in on the filming of “Finnian’s Rainbow”.
Starting The Business
Lucas’ “THX-1138” did not perform exceedingly well at the box office and reviews were middling and the film earned him the reputation of being a technical director lacking in humour and emotion. However, his talent was recognized by the studio and he was given $780,000 to make “American Graffiti”, the movie that would launch him into stardom. It was released in 1973 and would gross $120 million.
Lucas felt betrayed by some minor changes that the studio made to his final cut. He became determined to get himself to a place where he would own his own cameras and the film he shot on and so have final say on everything.
While negotiating the contract for “Star Wars” in 1975, Lucas cut his director’s salary by $500,000 and traded it for ownership of merchandising and all sequel rights, things the studios thought worthless at the time. The move would give Lucas the control he hoped for. “Star Wars” broke all box office records and the tie-in merchandise has brought in more than $4.5 billion over the last twenty-five years. Lucas now could go and freely make the sequels on his own.
He financed “The Empire Strikes Back” himself, getting loans totaling $30 million to get the film made. If the film were to flop at the box office, Lucas would be bankrupt, but the success of the first film encouraged him, and “Empire” and the second sequel, “Return of the Jedi” were both huge hits.
After producing the three Indiana Jones films and made more than $100 million from them, Lucas stopped making films and turned all of his attention to experimenting with digital technology.
Building An Empire
In 1975, Industrial Light and Magic was started because there was no special effects company that could handle creating the effects for “Star Wars”. The first ILM innovation, the motion-control camera, allowed Lucas to simulate flight. ILM began accepting requests to do the special effects for other films. This helped fund Lucas’ research to improve the techniques he’d pioneered and experiment with new effects. At the cost of around $25 million for a film, ILM was an immediate success. Lucas took some of the profits and created Skywalker Sound which focussed on a film’s sound in the post-production phase. And from this the THX digital surround sound system for home and public movie theatres was introduced. Later, LucasArts Entertainment got Lucas involved with video-game production, releasing games like X-Wing and Rebel Assault.
As Lucas began work on Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, he marketed wisely and created excitement around the new film by re-releasing a special-edition of the “Star Wars” trilogy. The films earned over $475 million at the box office and got a new generation enthused about the films. Lucas was also able to finance the production of the Phantom Menace (for $115 million). Once again, this financial control would let Lucas have the final say. Its release in May of 1999 broke all box office records, earning $42 million on the first day alone. Episodes II and III have, profit-wise, followed suit.
Lucas is responsible for age of the blockbuster, the introduction of technology in cinema that enabled us to realize visions of a hyper-reality, and the popularization of the highly lucrative area of merchandizing. As a hard working risk-taker, confident in the quality of his product, he has been able to set his own high standards and change the nature of how Hollywood makes movies.