A New Hope
George Lucas talks to Conor Dignam and a group of young film-makers about the technological changes revolutionising the film industry and how opportunity for all means the end of the studio system.
We are waiting for George Lucas. It is a sunny morning in London’s Soho and the man himself is expected within the next 10 minutes at the offices of a post-production house. Waiting to greet him are three young film-makers from Rwanda, Palestine and Israel who have all been brought to London as part of the Films Without Borders project which encourages film-makers and film-making in troubled countries.
Eventually Lucas arrives, stepping out of a chauffeur-driven car, clutching a Starbucks latte in one hand and shaking lots of hands with the other. During the next 70 minutes the man who has probably shaped popular film culture more than any other for the last three decades is in relaxed form as he is interviewed by the three young film-makers - and later by Screen - and paints a rosy picture of a digital world rich with opportunities for film-makers who are determined to grab them.
What is clear about the creator of the global Star Wars franchise, whose personal wealth is estimated at around $3bn, is that Lucas still regards himself as an “outsider” - not part of the Hollywood studio establishment but in many respects the biggest independent film-maker in the world.
“The paradigm of how movies get made and how they get distributed is going away. The internet has pretty much wiped out borders.”
Only the first Star Wars movie was made with studio money. Following its success Lucas has used the profits and bank loans to make all the subsequent Star Wars films. When he talks about “them” he means the big studio-owning corporations, and when he says “us” he means film-makers like the three young students sitting with him. But Lucas firmly believes that new digital technologies are fundamentally shifting the balance of power between the old film order and the new.
“The consortium of rich corporations that used to control this entire medium are now doomed,” says Lucas. “The paradigm of how movies get made and how they get distributed is going away. The internet has pretty much wiped out borders. Now you can get people around the world to see your movies, and in the next 10 to 20 years the old set up is all going to be gone.”
He paints a bright and positive picture of the future of film-making - with the means of production and distribution now so accessible that the game has changed completely. “It used to be that they could stop you [making a film]. They can’t stop you now.”
He adds: “Globalisation affects media more than anything else. The borders and barriers, all those things that existed in 20th century, don’t exist any more; they are falling as we speak. You can make a movie anywhere in the world and show it anywhere you want - professional high-quality film.”
His view of life for young film-makers is simple: “You don’t have to tear down the old; you don’t have to start with big giant studios. You have the ability to start a film company, to start a studio. And as with everything it comes down to the determination to do something to make a movie and start a studio.”
The phenomenon of the Star Wars and later Indiana Jones movies is often regarded as the template on which the franchise blockbusters have since been built - bringing merchandising and licensing into the film business as never before.
Lucas is clear about his mission when making movies; to deliver great entertainment. If you want to deliver a polemic or very direct political message, he tells the young film-makers, then go into documentary. But if you are in the entertainment business then you have got to deliver that. “If you want to make movies that people see, you have got to give them what they want. People put out hard-earned money and you can’t ever lose sight of the fact somebody is giving you their time and money - two very valuable things.”
Lucas has a naturally understated style and he also applies that to questions about his own business-making acumen. He has done several famous deals that have made his fortune. In order to get the first Star Wars film made with 20th Century Fox (after every other studio rejected it) he gave up his directing fee in exchange for 40% of profits and all merchandising rights. The rest, of course, is history. The Star Wars franchise is estimated to have generated around $26.6bn in merchandising revenue since the first film in 1977.
But Lucas says those deals struck back then did not look like they do now. Hindsight makes them probably the best commercial deals a film-maker has ever done, but at the time he was simply hanging on to as many rights as he could to ensure the films were made.
“Everything I have done is self preservation, just to ensure I didn’t get screwed by the system.”
“It was purely artistic hubris. Like any self-absorbed artist, I was thinking, ‘You will not touch my work. I created this and I don’t want people screwing around with it.’ I grabbed on to it before anyone even knew that it was something you needed to have.
“I was concerned they [the studio] would get sequel rights to my movie and not make them. Everything I have done is self preservation, just to ensure I didn’t get screwed by the system.” In fact he says he did what no one should ever do. “I invested in the film business, ploughing the profits from the Star Wars movies back into the next project and then the profits from that into the next one. But I believed in myself and my films.”
At the end of the interviews, Lucas’ publicist says he has run out of time and really has to go. “Did you get what you needed” she asks. Lucas chimes in: “Yeah, he’s going to write that he’s not as smart as everyone thinks he is.”
But I’m left with the feeling that George Lucas is just as smart as everyone thinks he is, and probably a bit more.
THE LUCAS FILE
In 1967, graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, then enrolled as a graduate student in film production.
Debut feature as a writer-director, THX 1138, was released in 1971.
Wrote and directed American Graffiti, released in 1973, and formed Lucasfilm.
Established Industrial Light & Magic in 1975 to produce visual effects for Star Wars, which stormed the box office in 1977 and won seven Academy Awards.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark was released in 1981; it spawned three sequels for Lucasfilm.
Returned to Star Wars, directing Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999). The second trilogy grossed $2.56bn worldwide.
Click here to read the George Lucas Q&A