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How Star Wars Nearly Destroyed George Lucas

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Last week George Lucas completed his $4.06 billion sale of Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company, effectively making the Star Wars franchise one more gear in the Disney corporate entertainment machine. To many, it seemed inconceivable: what would Star Wars be without George Lucas, the brain behind Luke Skywalker and light sabers and the Jedi Knights, the man whose operatic imagination launched a generation of fanboys? But the sale of Lucasfilm was a testament to the evolution that George Lucas and the company he founded have undergone over the past few decades, as a diehard fan culture sprang up around the franchise and pushed it in new directions. Lucas’s biggest fear was losing control of the world he had created. And so for a man who spent his career railing against the corporate takeover of the film industry, the sale—for all the billions Lucas walked away with—still feels like a kind of defeat.

Lucas had always been something of a fanboy himself. As a teenager he was obsessed with cars, and wanted to be a racecar driver until an accident the day before his high school graduation almost killed him. His other passion was movies: adventure, sci-fi. At the University of Southern California film school he made “THX 1138,” a movie about a futuristic world ruled by fascism and mind control—a precursor to Darth Vader’s evil Empire—later turned into a feature film by Warner Brothers. But Lucas was infuriated by plot tweaks and script adjustments suggested by the studio. In 1971 he responded by founding his own production company, Lucasfilm, so that he could make his movies with minimum interference from the world outside.

While writing Star Wars, Lucas went to the local newsstand every week and bought comic books and science fiction magazines. He studied the sci-fi adventure comic strip Flash Gordon, which he had watched as a boy, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He researched fairy tales, mythology, and child psychology. His notebooks filled up with mysterious invented words: Wookie, R2D2, Jawa. Star Wars was a deeply personal vision, and it consumed him. He was so emotionally invested that when frustrated, he had the strange habit of snipping off a piece of his own hair with scissors.

After the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, was released in 1977 and became the highest-grossing movie of all time, Lucas personally financed the sequel and bought back the rights to the original film from its financier and distributor, 20th Century Fox. Instead of a huge salary bump from Fox, Lucas wanted total creative control. He went on to finance every Star Wars sequel and prequel from The Empire Strikes Back on. He established his own special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. He hated directing, because he hated collaboration. “I just don’t want my vision muddied,” he told me in an interview for my book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, regarding accusations that he is resistant to feedback.

But the massive and unexpected success of the early Star Wars films turned Lucas from an auteur into the head of a corporate conglomerate. In order to make sure that everything connected to Star Wars looked exactly the way he wanted it to, Lucas demanded total control over merchandising. And merchandising possibilities exploded as the early films were released: revenue from action figures alone exceeded $100 million. Star Wars posters outsold then-sex symbol Farrah Fawcett’s image five to one. But merchandise management was time-consuming, and a deep paranoia loomed over Lucas’s commercial success. “I’m trying to cement my world as hard as I can before it all falls apart,” Lucas told me in 1983.

He always had something of a tortured relationship with his fans. In the 2010 documentary The People Versus George Lucas, adult men and women in Jedi costumes waved light sabers in protest after Lucas re-cut the first three Star Wars films to add new effects and storylines. The constant demand for more Star Wars installments after the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi overwhelmed Lucas. “Why would I make any more,” he told The New York Times earlier this year regarding the reaction of Star Wars fans to his sequels, “when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”

For Lucas—a sci-fi purist obsessively committed to his own artistic vision—the pressure from Hollywood, from Star Wars fans, and from himself ultimately proved overwhelming. His films began to suffer. As the Star Wars prequels were released, beginning with The Phantom Menace in 1999, many critics felt that Lucas had lost the spirit of wonder and fun that had animated the original Star Wars movies. He soldiered on through two more badly-received prequels, released in 2000 and 2005, then seemed to run out of gas. As fans clamored for more spin-offs, he supervised Star Wars novelizations and a TV series about a young Indiana Jones. Eventually there was talk that he had no more Star Wars films in the pipeline, and rumors of a new Indiana Jones franchise led to only silence. Lucas retreated to the secluded Skywalker Ranch he had begun building in 1978—complete with the sprawling “Lake Ewok” and a 300-seat theater called “The Stag”—remaining involved only in his animated TV series, “The Clone Wars.” 

So when the sale of Lucasfilm was announced last week, it felt partly inevitable. Mainstream success had taken its toll on Lucas. The experimental sci-fi films he had vowed to create once he made it big never materialized. In effect, he became what he once reviled: the corporate chieftain of a company for which scale and sparkle and box office numbers trumped the specifics of his artistic vision. In the end, it seemed, there was nowhere for Lucas to go at Lucasfilm but out.  

It’s hard to say where Lucas will go from here, or what Star Wars will look like without him. Disney’s purchase of the company includes all the properties in development at Lucasfilm, and the outlines for six more Star Wars films. Lucas’s legacy is clear: with the Force, he created the equivalent of a new religion for millions. His greatest impact may be that he changed the way films are made, from Dolby Stereo sound and digital editing to computer-generated special effects. Industrial Light & Magic transformed the moviemaking landscape in deep and essential ways. But in the end Star Wars was an all-or-nothing proposition for Lucas; his fanboy’s attachment to the details made it impossible for him to partially cede control. Now it remains to be seen whether the Star Wars universe will be a different place in Disney’s hands—perhaps even a better, more beautiful, more imaginative one, closer to the Star Wars that Lucas himself had originally envisioned.  

Dale M. Pollock is a film producer and the author of Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.