In a galaxy not far, far away—actually, our own—Star Wars, a tribute to sci-fi serials of decades before, premiered to low expectations from 20th-Century Fox in late May 1977. The company’s bets that summer were on The Other Side of Midnight, an adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s steamy megaseller. Studio execs, reluctant even to bankroll the film by George Lucas, didn’t object when he insisted on retaining sequel and merchandising rights.
You know the rest of the story: how word of mouth created unheard-of lines for Star Wars; how the film, with its quasi-mythical, quasi-spiritual overtones (“May The Force be with you”), ended up grossing $775.4 million worldwide and created an equally successful franchise (eventually forcing this entry to be renamed “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”); and how its success solidified the dawning industry recognition since Jaws two years before that summer was prime time to capture the market for kids out of school.
Of course the movie upended the industry. Lucas saw himself as an independent, part of a new generation of film-school grads who strived to brand their pictures with a distinctive vision. But the Star Wars phenomenon also led to the kind of sequel-driven, stodgy filmmaking that Lucas and fellow Young Turks Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma were rebelling against.
The process of filming this project close to his heart (the first name of the movie’s heart, Luke Skywalker, is a shortened version of Lucas) convinced Lucas that he should concentrate for the foreseeable future on producing while leaving directing and screenwriting to others. (A wise choice, particularly in the case of the writing: After scanning his dialogue as rogue pilot-turned-hero Han Solo, Harrison Ford growled: “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”) He would also have more time to build the infrastructure and budding empire he needed that would be based on licensing rights and special effects.
Some years ago, while visiting a relative in a physical rehabilitation center, I met a friend of his roommate, a onetime Hollywood veteran. He regaled me with tales of Tinseltown in the Sixties and Seventies (e.g., Ricky Nelson and Joey Heatherton on a motorcycle, the very epitome of young, glamorous, spoiled children of stars). But perhaps the story he recounted with the most gusto concerned the deep unhappiness of Fox’s board over the approval and production of Star Wars, from 1973 to 1977.
“Alan Ladd Jr. was in charge then, and they kept giving him hell about greenlighting it. They never thought it would be a hit.” He paused, then chuckled. “So nobody really objected when Lucas wanted the licensing rights. If they thought it would ever make so much money, they would never have given him the rights.”
(In one way, you couldn’t blame these men for their lack of imagination. Ever since the disastrous 1967 Rex Harrison musical Dr. Dolittle, no studio had managed to make money off movie-related toys and other tie-ins. Furthermore, with Star Wars premiering in May, nobody imagined that children’s fascination with the world Lucas created could even be sustained till the all-important Christmas season.)
When members of the Fox board got a look at early footage, they were positively convinced they had gotten a steal: Lucas had foregone an additional $500,000 in directing fees for what was sure to be a turkey in return for keeping licensing and merchandising rights for himself. With a vision of an entire six-film saga in his head, Lucas didn’t want anyone interfering with his work. The money didn’t mean that much to him, but independence from the studio “suits” did.
How lucrative was that licensing deal? In 1978, the first year after the premiere of the franchise, more than 40 million "Star Wars" figures were bought, producing gross sales of more than $100 million. In 2011, when there was no new movie in the series to fan interest, "Star Wars" toys brought in more than $3 billion.
Equally integral to Lucas’ film were special effects. When Ladd reviewed Lucas’ original script, he told the young filmmaker (who had at that point only one major hit, American Graffiti, to give him box-office cred) that he didn’t understand the necessity for everything requested, but that he trusted Lucas enough to go along with his project.
But, as much as he liked the young man, Ladd could only provide so much assistance. Fox no longer even had a special effects department. Yet visual effects (“with lots of pans and this giant space battle at the end,” in Lucas’ words) would constitute one-fifth of the movie’s $10 million budget. If Lucas wanted them, he’d have to create them himself.
The product of that determination, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), was set up in a warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in 1975. Its employees—unused at the time to working under breakneck film deadlines—were assigned to create Lucas’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras—a process that turned out to be protracted and ferociously hot. (For relief, the workers filled up a water tank with cold water and dipped into it during breaks.)
In the end, all this painstaking labor paid off. Star Wars won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (all six of its wins were in technical categories), and to date ILM has received 15 Academy Awards and 29 nominations. By 2015, ILM had made special effects for approximately 320 movies, according to this retrospective published that year in Wired.
The critic Alfred Kazin wrote that Ernest Hemingway brought “a major art to a minor vision of life.” The same might be said of George Lucas. In the four decades since his magnum opus hit theaters with all the speed of its Millennial Falcon, the technical aspects of moviemaking have advanced to undreamed-of heights, helped in no small part by him. But the art of movie storytelling has not only not kept up but has even deteriorated, as Hollywood cannot conceive of attention spans much larger than a teenager’s--the same demographic at the heart of his movie. The Lucas legacy, then, is a mixed one.