George Lucas never wanted to take over his father's office supply
store. He didn't think himself a businessman. He had no head for
figures. Yet, before he left his hometown for college, he predicted that
he would be a millionaire by the time he was thirty. He was
off by two years: Lucas made his first million by the time he was twenty-eight.
Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars trilogy, is not known so much
for his money-making skills as for his movie-making ones. His childhood
interests--history books, music, and race cars--didn't
promise much on their own, but combined with natural energy and a powerful
imagination, they propelled him to success.
Modesto, California, where Lucas grew up, was not a thrilling
town. Throughout his high school years he dreamed of getting out, of
making it as a race car driver. His father, ever the model of
encouragement, bought his son a Fiat Bianchina. Lucas souped it up then
began entering and winning races. A terrible crash changed his mind about
this form of work. By 1962, when he finally escaped Modesto, he had
decided to be a filmmaker.
Lucas showed talent while still at USC Film School, winning
prizes, scholarships and the respect of his colleagues. He always worked
fast--perhaps this habit was a remnant of his car-racing days--and was
remarkable for his ability to shoot and edit movies well ahead of
schedule. An established producer-director, Francis Ford Coppola, helped
to distribute Lucas' second feature film, "American Grafitti," which was
about teenagers in 1960s Modesto. The movie took off, insuring that Lucas
would have the money to make another one.
He had a vague idea of what he wanted to do: something that would
improve on his first feature film, a science fiction story called THX
1138. It would also be science fiction, but Lucas didn't have characters
or a story--he only had mental pictures of the way such a movie might
look. He had studied anthropology during college, looking for elements of
the world's mythologies with which to organize these pictures. It took
years, but he finally came up with the tale of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo,
fighting against the evil Empire. In the end, Lucas' rich fantasy life and
sweeping vision led him to make one of the most popular movies of all
Most filmmakers, even the great ones, are dependent on big
Hollywood studios for work, and this was where Lucas separated himself
from the rest. Fox, the studio that paid to make "Star Wars," had not
counted on the movie's success, and Lucas was able to make an incredibly
smart business decision: he agreed to give up part of his salary, in exchange for the sequel rights and merchandising rights, that is, profits from the sale of Star Wars toys, clothing, books, etcetera. The merchandising money proved
many times more than the salary he gave up.
Lucas liked making movies his own way--not the way the big movie
studios told him to. The money he made from "Star Wars" enabled him to
finance the next two movies on his own, which is very hard for most
producers to do. Financing his own movies gave him artistic control that
producer-directors at big studios usually don't have. Because of the
technical requirements of his movies, Lucas also founded Industrial Light
& Magic, the special effects company which has since made "Indiana Jones,"
"Jurassic Park," "The Mask," and "Forrest Gump." ILM developed digital
techniques that improved the art of special effects.
Lucas' business decisions helped him to realize other dreams. He
set up a studio in Northern California called Skywalker Ranch, where
people who prefer to work outside the Hollywood system can write
and edit movies.
In 1991, he established The George Lucas Educational Foundation. It promotes effective schools and programs around the country, especially those that integrate technology with teaching and learning.
In Lucasfilm Ltd, Lucas created a unique type of movie studio: one
devoted solely to the art of filmmaking without the undue pursuit of
profit. He's also a generous boss--one of the few big producers who has
actually given out percentage points (shares in the royalties from his
movies) to his cast and crew. He throws company picnics and gives
Thanksgiving turkeys to each employee every year.
"My father provided me with a lot of business principles, a
small-town retail business ethic, and I guess I learned it," George Lucas
once said. This comment makes one suspect that the office supply business
isn't so different from the movie industry. Perhaps it's all a matter of
scale and imagination.