The Man Who Made Star Wars

The idea was to make a high adventure film for children. The result was the box-office hit of all time. The man responsible was George Lucas

The one character who comes close to him is Curt, and after confronting him, Curt can escape the town, while the others stay fixed in their past. He is the would-be cynic with a romantic spirit, frightened of catching the plane to go away to college. He spends the night of the film's action, against his will, with a gang of punks. He catches a glimpse of a wonderful blond girl in a white T-bird, sailing past him on Third Street. For him, the Wolfman is his only means of contact with this golden vision. He finds the courage to drive out to the radio station, enter the corridors, face the station manager through a maze of reflecting glass; the sound track, in precise counterpoint, plays "Crying in the Chapel." The manager assures him the Wolfman is not there, the Wolfman is only on tape; but as Curt leaves, the manager puts back his head and lets out a Wolfman howl. In that moment of realization, Curt finds the power to face an outside world.

When the script of American Graffiti reached Ned Tannen's desk at Universal Pictures, it had already been rejected by United Artists, after their initial flush of interest, and it had been "turned down by every other company in town." But Tannen liked the idea. "God knows," he says, "I've made enough mistakes so I can say this wasn't one of them."

"I was having a very difficult time," Tannen says, "persuading the company to let me make American Graffiti." Partly, it was a project that came to Universal at the wrong time. "Universal was a very conservative company," Gary Kurtz says. "It was making most of its money in TV, and gearing most of its theatrical film to an eventual sale to TV." The unconventional would not, Universal feared, attract a free-spending network.

Then there was the problem of explaining American Graffiti to a board of directors. For Tannen, "it was just an idea. Nobody knew what it was. It wasn't based on some book that was a huge best-seller. It wasn't a special-effects movie where you have all sorts of gyrations and people could say, 'Oh, boy! That's terrific!' It was a terribly personal, small story." There was no single line on which it could be promoted. "Pictures like American Graffiti have to be discovered. There's no way you can hype that kind of a movie. What are you going to sell it on?" Even when the film was complete, Tannen says, "nobody in the company had any concept of what the film was. It's funny thinking of it now. It didn't seem funny then."

Universal made a condition for allowing the project to go ahead: Find a big name. Lucas did not want stars. The only figure who could possibly convince the all-powerful head of the studio, Lew Wasserman, was a producer-Francis Ford Coppola. He was, finishing The Godfather; he was established and known; he would do very well. Gary Kurtz remembers: "George and I went to Francis and asked him if he'd come into the project with us." The name proved enough for Universal to put $780,000 into making the film.

Evidently, the name was not enough to make Universal believe the project stood a chance of success. Lucas asked for $10,000 to buy the album rights to the songs he was planning to use on the sound track; Universal refused. When the film had been released, and its success was obvious, they had to pay $50,000 for the rights to the same material. While Coppola and Lucas were exiled from the lot by a strike of the Screen Writers Guild, the studio recut the film. They refused to release the film in stereophonic sound, although it had specifically been designed for stereo. And when they first saw a print, some angry studio executives believed the entire film was unfit to be released. Only after a stormy outburst by Coppola, standing at the back of a crowded San Francisco cinema, was the film saved. Universal owes its gigantic earnings to Coppola's temper.

Star Wars began as fourteen pages of story. United Artists, entitled to see each Lucas
project because of their interest in American Graffiti, refused it.  "Universal never formally said no," Gary Kurtz says, "but I knew from talking to the people there that they were uneasy about the idea." As Kurtz and Lucas continued to build enthusiasm within the film world for their earlier film, their new project for a space fantasy began to seem more plausible. It is a curious form of Hollywood logic: Back winners, whatever they do. "If it hadn't been for that success," Kurtz says, "we would not have been able to get Star Wars made at any studio, because they all had the same apprehensions."

This is how it worked. "We finished Graffiti at the end of January, and the answer print was ready in the first week of February," Lucas says. "That was when we had the arguments about the release dates. We made the deal [with Twentieth Century-Fox] on Star Wars on the first of May, and Graffiti came out in August. But the film was building before release. And it was really in Hollywood that it was beginning to build." All Twentieth Century-Fox promised in the May deal was the money to start developing a script. Like all Hollywood deals, this one moved step by cautious step. It did not guarantee the film would ever be written, let alone made. But by the second and third steps in the contract, American Graffiti was on release. "It did well in New York and Los Angeles, but it took a while to grow. We didn't know until well into October and November that it was going to be an enormous hit," Gary Kurtz says. Neither he nor Lucas could control the marketing of the film, or prevent Universal from selling off the rights in various states before exhibitors had a chance to see the film. Kurtz had planned to bide his time. "I thought we could go to theaters across the country after the first week and say, 'Look, the first week's take is good, the second week is good-book this picture!'" In the event, the second and third weeks of the release were what Variety calls "socko" and even "boffo."  Mr. Wasserman intervened.  He ordered his executives to scrap other bookings and make theaters bid again for the film.  Mr. Wasserman is not lightly disobeyed.

Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys ("I love them, I'm really into that"), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.

From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. "Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio," he says, "but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn't ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade." Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, "already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff."

Lucas could argue, with reason, that he was protecting his own investment of two years' research and writing as well as his share of the $300,000 from Graffiti which he and Kurtz used as seed money for developing Star Wars. "We found Fox were giving away merchandising rights, just for the publicity," he says. "They gave away tie-in promotions with a big fast-food chain. They were actually paying these people to do this big campaign for them. We told them that was insane. We pushed and we pushed and we got a lot of good deals made." When the film appeared, the numbers became otherworldly: $100,000 worth of Tshirts sold in a month; $260,000 worth of intergalactic bubble gum; a $3 million advertising budget for presweetened Star Wars breakfast cereals. That was before the sales of black digital watches and citizens' band radio sets and personal jet sets.

The idea of Star Wars was simply to make a "real gee-whiz movie." It would be a high adventure film for children, a pleasure film which would be a logical end to the road down which Coppola had directed his apparently cold, remote associate. As Graffiti went out around the country, Lucas refined his ideas. He toyed with remaking the great Flash Gordon serials, with Dale Arden in peril and the evil Emperor Ming; but the owners of the rights wanted a high price and overstringent controls on how their characters were used. Instead, Lucas began to research. "I researched kids' movies," he says, "and how they work and how myths work; and I looked very carefully at the elements of films within that fairy-tale genre which made them successful."  Some of his conclusions were almost fanciful. "I found that myth always took place over the hill, in some exotic, far-off land. For the Greeks, it was Ulysses going off into the unknown. For Victorian England it was India or North Africa or treasure islands. For America it was Out West. There had to be strange savages and bizarre things in an exotic land. Now the last of that mythology died out in the mid-1950s, with the last of the men who knew the Old West. The last 'over the hill' is space."

Other conclusions were more practical. "The title Star Wars was an insurance policy. The studio didn't see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn't like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars." Beyond that audience, Lucas was firm that the general public should be encouraged to see the film not as esoteric science fiction but as a space fantasy.

The final plot line was concocted after four drafts, in which different heroes in different ages had soared through space to worlds even wilder than those that finally appeared. It was a calculated blend. "I put in all the elements that said this was going to be a hit," Lucas says. He even put a value on them. "With Star Wars I reckoned we should do $16 million domestic"—that is, the distributors' share in the United States and Canada would amount to $16 million—"and, if the film caught right, maybe $25 million. The chances were a zillion to one of it going further."  Wall Street investment analysts, even after the film had opened, shared his doubts. They felt it could never match Jaws.

Both makers and analysts were wrong. Star Wars was a "sleeper," a film whose vast success was in doubt until after it had been open for a while. Meanwhile, Lucas and Kurtz had to do battle over budgets. The original sums were so tight that Kurtz told the board at Fox, "This will only work if everything goes perfectly. And it very rarely does." During shooting, the designer of monsters fell sick, his work for the sequence in a space tavern incomplete. The sequence did not work in its original form, but the studio would allow only $20,000 more to restage and reshoot the scene.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In