19 Dec 2016

The empire of George Lucas

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 19 December 2016

Peter Jackson calls George Lucas "the Thomas Edison of the movie industry", an innovator above all else. 

Lucas was a nerd before nerds were cool.  He's always been a loner, but with an instinct for what people like. 

His epic franchise Star Wars will be in theatres again just in time for Christmas.  While his contemporaries such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola won the acclaim, Lucas raked in the cash.

New York Times best-selling author Brian Jay Jones writes about the empire of the outsider inside Hollywood. His book is called George Lucas: A Life.

He says after an initial foray into experimental cinema Lucas developed an unerring sense of what audiences would enjoy. His first big hit American Graffiti gave him the funds to buy creative independence.

Lucas made American Graffiti very cheaply for around $US700,000 and it has subsequently become one of the most profitable films of all time.

“Lucas premiered this movie at a theatre in San Francisco and the place just went crazy, standing on their feet, hooting and hollering,” says Jones.

Despite this ecstatic reaction the studio, Universal, had no faith in the film.

“It takes that film and edits four minutes out of it, and that is the moment when Lucas is determined to be his own man and go his own way because in his view Universal had edited four minutes of that movie just because they could.”

When the film becomes a smash, and hugely profitable, Lucas has money coming in and he uses it for a Flash Gordon idea he’s been kicking around.  

“This is the first real example of Lucas being charmingly reckless. He takes every dollar he’s made from American Graffiti, it made Lucas a lot of money, and he starts pouring money into this project he calls ‘this Flash Gordon thing’ a movie nobody understands, nobody gets, there are handwritten drafts calling it The Adventures of the Star Killer.”

This idea would of course eventually become Star Wars.

Lucas has a vision for the film but has to build it from scratch, Jones says.

“Sci Fi is a dead genre in 1975 so Lucas is starting to build his own special effects company to make the kind of effects that he wants. He’s taking all of his own profits and pouring them back into his own company Lucas Film which he’s just created.”

And once Lucas gets studio backing filming stars and the misery really begins.

“The making of Star Wars is like a dog walking on its hind legs, the fact it even happened at all is miraculous.”

Lucas is abandoned in the Tunisian desert battling tightwad studio executives, robot wardrobe malfunctions and freak weather.  The stress was such Lucas became physically ill, Jones says, but the film once released was a spectacular success.

“The critics went nuts for Star Wars, he caught lighting in a bottle,” Jones says.

From that moment Lucas decided day-to-day directing wasn’t for him and he starts planning the follow up to Star Wars.

And once again he pours the proceeds from one hit into the development of his next project.

“With Empire Strikes Back once again Lucas is being reckless, he’s taken every dollar he’s made from Star Wars and he made a lot primarily because he controlled the merchandising. They’ve got millions coming in from merchandising alone.”

Lucas goes on to further huge success with the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, making the kind of films he would like to see, says Jones.

“He’s unapologetic about coming from a poppy, pulpy, comic-booky background.”


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