In the film biz, there's Before George and After George
|What: AFI Life Achievement Award
Who: George Lucas
Where: Kodak Theatre, Hollywood
When: June 9, 7 p.m. dinner & ceremony
Wattage: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Duvall
What hath George Lucas wrought?
Now sitting atop the box office mountain again with his latest record-breaking grosser, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas — the latest recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award — can survey an economic and cultural landscape that he has largely shaped over the past quarter-century.
“Star Wars” changed the way movies were made, marketed and merchandized. The Force became as familiar a belief system as Christianity, the term “Star Wars” was appropriated by President Reagan and the Pentagon, and Yoda is now imitated as frequently as Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson once were.
The innovations that Lucas pioneered in film and theater sound, nonlinear editing, digital effects and computer animation have influenced almost every feature made since the mid-1980s, and now enable millions of people to make credible works on their home computers.
In short, if Lucas has not morphed into the Emperor, he’s come pretty close to building an empire of his own, headquartered in Marin County and now San Francisco. Lucas has achieved more financially, creatively and technologically than any other filmmaker in history. No other successful director has owned the copyright to the major work of his career, spanning almost 30 years and six films.
If Lucas failed to inspire filmmakers to follow his entrepreneurial path (with the exception of home-based auteur Robert Rodriguez), he certainly transformed the rest of the commercial marketplace. Lucas cemented his reputation for giving birth to the blockbuster mentality with his wildly successful five succeeding “Star Wars” “episodes” (their structure a tribute to the movie serials he watched as a TV-besotted kid in Modesto, Calif.). He followed up with the popular “Indiana Jones” series, and just about every blockbuster series since has followed Lucas’ example, from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” films to digitally animated hits like “Toy Story” and “Shrek.”
Synergy of branding
Hollywood always had its “spectaculars,” from “King Kong” to “Ben-Hur,” but Lucas developed a successful synergy that saw toy, food and apparel merchandizing; books, videos and DVDs; soundtracks; videogames; and (ultimately and most successfully) the Internet contribute to “Star Wars” branding. Ask today’s film student what “Rosebud” means, and you’ll get a blank stare. Say “May the Force be with you” and the student will ask you if you were at one of the midnight screenings of “Sith.”
Lucas also can be credited with single-handedly reviving the sci-fi genre, and even more important, keeping alive the idea of space as a frontier for the imagination and the scientist/explorer/warrior.
Lucas completed the liberation of cinema from the reality of three-dimensional sets and locations; other worlds now can be rendered on a computer and the limitations are only those of the artist. Whatever one thinks of the dramatic shortcomings of the three “Star Wars” prequels, it is difficult to resist their visual allure and startling detail.
The work that Lucas began in a San Fernando Valley warehouse with the first “Star Wars” film, and flowered in the golden age of Industrial Light & Magic in the 1980s and early ’90s, is now done by specialized f/x houses all over the world.
The computer graphics that seemed revolutionary in “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator II” are commonplace. Peter Jackson and his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy demonstrated that ILM-quality work could be done in New Zealand at a low price. Hundreds of young computer and film geeks around the globe are planning ILM clones of their own.
Lucas also developed a potent business model of how to milk a franchise for maximum economic, cultural and technological impact. Lucas has been stressing in interviews for the past decade that the culmination of his entire life’s work would come in “Episode III,” and the result was a worldwide gross that surpassed $300 million during its first weekend.
Lucasfilm has made an art of cultivating Internet and fan convention interest to keep “Star Wars” constantly churning in the collective consciousness. Official and unofficial “Star Wars” Web sites number in the millions, and Lucas has craftily managed Web buzz for maximum impact.
The carefully staged presentation at the Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis in April 2004 is a case study of how to stoke fan fanaticism. Producer Rick McCallum presented to thousands of “Star Wars” aficionados several minutes of footage, including the opening space battle and the final funeral scene. New characters were introduced, the new world of Alderaan was glimpsed and Yoda decapitated a few bad guys. McCallum also disclosed plans for 3-D versions of all the “Star Wars” films, and the two upcoming “Star Wars” TV series, one animated and one live action. So much for “end of the franchise” speculation.
Estimates of marketing costs for “Episode III” range from $50 million to $150 million. But remember that in this truly unique case, they are borne by the filmmaker, and Lucasfilm will not publicly confirm any numbers. (It’s difficult to put a value on the barrage of free publicity the normally media-shy Lucas has garnered, with more magazine covers than Angelina Jolie, along with a Cannes Film Festival world premiere.)
Twentieth Century Fox is the ultimate studio handmaiden; it distributes the prints and collect the money, but it pretty much stops there. Former Fox studio chief Bill Mechanic recently complained in an NPR interview that Lucas really didn’t care what Mechanic thought about the first two prequels.
The age range of moviegoers that turned out for “Episode III’s” opening week across the globe is a good indication of the firm hold “Star Wars” has on media-shaped world culture. True intergenerational events are rare in our segmented world, and “Star Wars” has become a legacy passed from boomer parents to today’s college students and kids.
It also was striking to see so many people of color camped out in the “Revenge of the Sith” preopening lines; Lucas has achieved one of his primary goals, to create a functional (if superficial) mythology transcending age, race and gender.
Through his vision and an innate business acumen, Lucas has options unavailable to any filmmaker before him. Lucasfilm continues to evolve as a corporation, and its new Presidio headquarters in San Francisco offers intriguing glimpses into where the film industry and popular culture will be colliding in the future.
The Letterman Digital Arts Center — the new San Francisco headquarters for Lucasfilm Ltd., Lucas Arts (the games division) and ILM — constitutes the movie business’ equivalent of a super-computing center, able to move 1,000 terabytes of visual and audio data a day across the campus’ 10-gigabyte fiber-optic network.
Lucas also consolidated Lucasfilm’s marketing, online and licensing units into this futuristic headquarters, where business and technology will feed off each other.
LucasArts has already made huge inroads into the educational video market, fulfilling a longtime dream of slacker public school student Lucas, who was bored by books and yearned for visual stimulation in the classroom. The real potential of LucasArts is to integrate the design of films and videogames simultaneously, as with “Revenge of the Sith.” The “assets” of the feature film, in terms of digital imagery and effects, are incorporated directly into the game, rather than the movie simply inspiring the game.
Lucas intends his company to lead the way to today’s mass-media Holy Grail: the convergence of the filmed entertainment and gaming industries.
While Lucas has not followed his original goal of promoting an alternative filmmaking community in the San Francisco Bay Area, he does employ approximately 1,500 people at the Presidio complex.
Unlike Robert Redford, he has not been a beacon for independent filmmakers (like the one he still sees in himself). There’s no Lucasfilm Institute that competes with the revered Sundance Institute; for all the technological groundbreaking he has performed for the industry, ultimately Lucas has offered to aspiring filmmakers little more than a coldly efficient model on how to maintain total creative control of the products of their imagination.
When I finished more than 50 hours of interviews with Lucas for my biography of him, “Skywalking,” Lucas concluded by saying, “This company isn’t designed to go on for the next thousand years. It’s designed to service me while I’m alive and to give me the things I want to do.”
But, of course, “Star Wars” has become much more than a means to Lucas’ personal ends. He succeeded in doing what very few individuals have done (Thomas Edison and Henry Ford come to mind): He changed an entire industry, whether by design or selfishness.
For Hollywood, filmmaking in the late 20th and early 21st centuries can be described as BG or AG: Before George or After George.
Dale Pollock is dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and author of “Skywalking: The Life and Times of George Lucas,” published by Da Capo Press.