The Self-Made Man: George Lucas
George Lucas doesn’t make too many lists of notable entrepreneurs, but he really should. I mean, I can understand why he doesn’t – he’s mostly known as the filmmaker behind the hugely successful Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises, each with its own rabid, vocal fanbase that has spent the last ten years questioning many of Lucas’ artistic decisions (and not without good cause). Still, it’s also worth pointing out that he’s been quite the successful businessman, too; Lucasfilm and its army of subsidiaries are major innovators in film production, namely special effects, sound, and computer animation, and Lucas built that empire from the ground up. As much as metachlorians and Jar Jar Binks might piss you off, you can’t deny Lucas’ business acumen.
Lucas started Lucasfilm to make movies his own way, without studio interference. Unfortunately, the first movie to come out of his dynamic new company was the 1971 box office flop THX-1138, leading some people to question whether or not a little bit of studio interference was a good thing. Lucas did much better with American Graffiti, which was a huge hit, especially considering its modest budget. It made Lucas so much money that he probably could have stopped there and not regretted it. But Lucas was really invested in an idea that would become Star Wars, and he was willing to stake his new wealth and newly refurbished reputation on it.
So Lucas started up a few new subsidiaries of LucasFilm to handle the advanced (for the time, anyway) production needs of this new film. Specifically, he founded Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Sprocket Systems (later Skywalker Sound) to make sure he’d have complete control over the special and foley effects going forward, under the theory that distributors and studios couldn’t cheat him out of things like final cut privileges if he owned all the stock. It wasn’t without its hitches, but this ended up being a profitable way of thinking for Lucas.
Lucas also saw potential in other revenue sources that the industry considered worthless, namely merchandising and sequel rights. In fact, he slashed his directing fee for Star Wars in exchange for ownership of those two things, and of course he set up Lucas Licensing to manage it all. He ended up getting insane returns from all the Star Wars games, toys, and collectibles, and his approach became an industry standard.
After the original Star Wars trilogy had run its course, Lucas turned ILM into a service company so he could keep experimenting with digital effects while other people essentially paid for it. ILM supplied effects for Jurassic Park and Twister, among other blockbuster films, and was consequently rather profitable. To this day, ILM is a heavy hitter in its field, having contributed effects to The Mummy, Hulk, the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and Rango, which was also the company’s first animated feature film.
Given all this, it’s odd that you don’t hear more about Lucas’ entrepreneurial spirit. Here’s a guy who was so dedicated to making movies his way that he rolled the dice multiple times with his own money to do so. The Star Wars films were not easy to make; there were union disputes, trouble with actors (namely Sir Alex Guinness), shoot location difficulties (the Hoth scenes were shot in Norway in what would be their worst winter in a century, with all the expected problems for cast, crew, and facilities), and the frustration of having to explain his idea to his distributors multiple times because they didn’t understand what he was trying to do. It’s a wonder his head didn’t explode.
But thanks to a relentless work ethic and a bit of that positive mental attitude, and his own keen foresight, Lucas made himself both a billionaire and a sterling example of what TSB means when we talk about entrepreneurs who make things happen. That doesn’t excuse how bad Revenge of the Sith was, though.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.