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LUCAS THE LONER RETURNS TO ‘WARS’

George Lucas sits in his office overlooking the sun-dappled hills of his 2,600-acre Skywalker Ranch and chuckles at the notion of his old friend and colleague Steven Spielberg down in smoggy Hollywood, hammering together his new studio with his partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

“Those guys have a lot of work to do,” says the 51-year-old filmmaker, at ease in scuffed Nikes, jeans and a blue plaid shirt. “I keep saying, ‘Why are you doing this? You own the universe, why do you want to go work in the stables?'”

Lucas is here in his office only because it is Friday, the one day a week when he tackles corporate tasks like opening his mail, attending Lucasfilm board meetings, checking out interactive games at LucasArts and, on rare occasions, talking to the press.

The rest of the time he’s nestled in a secret hideaway within walking distance of his San Rafael home, putting on paper the futuristic fantasies that, before the decade is out, will become three more feature film episodes of Lucas’ “Star Wars” epic. With some prodding, Lucas admits his intention to direct one of the films – and this is news.

The skinny kid from Modesto, Calif., who burst upon Hollywood in 1973 with “American Graffiti” and practically invented blockbuster motion picture economics with the “Star Wars” trilogy, has not directed a feature film since the first “Star Wars” 18 years ago. Lucas long ago resigned his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, quit both the writers and directors guilds in 1981, pulled up stakes and moved north to Marin County.

Lucas’ antipathy toward Hollywood is well known – his feelings based on the experience of having his first two films recut against his will by the studios that owned them, as well his own admittedly conservative and, some say, shy nature. Even now, although the Academy handed Lucas its prestigious Thalberg Award in 1992, he decries what he sees as a lack of filmmaker-friendly types in the ranks of studio execs. Indeed, Lucas left Hollywood to make films his way.

Yet ironically, the filmmaker has spent much of his energy over the last decade servicing other people’s films. His special effects division, Industrial Light & Magic, has created groundbreaking digital illusions for such films as Universal’s current hit “Casper” – not to mention the dinos in Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”

But the extremely competitive effects business has become one of shrinking profit margins. And with the exception of the “Indiana Jones” series, the few films Lucasfilm has produced since “Star Wars” have fared poorly.

Different paths

Spielberg, on the other hand, chose to work within the Hollywood system, directing many of the most commercial and artistically successful films ever made.

Comparing the two talented peers begs the question of whether the middle years of Lucas’ career have not been financially or artistically satisfying – whether or not Lucas is personally happy.

Lucas says he and Spielberg have debated the question many times over the years, often with Lucas grumbling about attending board meetings and Spielberg envying Lucas’ autonomy.

“I don’t like being chairman of the board,” says Lucas.

His goal: “To make the next ‘Star Wars’ with a lot more scope than I was able to do before, at a very reasonable cost, and be able to tell more interesting stories.”

In the meantime, Lucas commands a privately owned company that is in many ways what old-line Hollywood studios are still striving to become: a true multimedia company engaged in the production of feature film, TV, commercials, interactive games, theatrical sound and home theater products, visual effects, licensing and post-production services on the cutting edge of the digital era.

But it has been a long and often painful process of trial and error. While Lucasfilm’s record in the feature film division includes exec producing the Speilberg-helmed box office bonanzas “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the record also includes box office disappointments such as the Francis Coppola-directed “Tucker,” Ron Howard’s “Willow” and, most recently, “Radioland Murders.” In 1986, Lucas exec produced Universal’s notorious $35 million turkey, “Howard the Duck.”

Lucas’ TV series, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” was canceled in 1993 by ABC, after the web aired 28 of the 32 hours that had been shot. LucasArts, the interactive games division founded in 1982, just after the crash of Atari, was not turning a significant profit until recently. Skywalker Sound sold off its LA. facilities and retreated northward just last year.

Local conflicts

Though isolated geographically from Hollywood infighting and distractions, Skywalker Ranch is beset by local opposition to expansion of its operations, a factor stalling key components of Lucas’ long-range plans. Lucas, the father of three adopted daughters, underwent a painful divorce in the mid ’80s. And a succession of top-level executive exits over the years hinted at political struggles and dissatisfaction among the rolling hills of Lucas Valley, which was so-named long before George Lucas set eyes upon it.

Given the myriad business uncertainties surrounding Lucas’ enterprises, it’s not surprising that more “Star Wars” sequels – perhaps the closest things in showbiz history to being sure hits – loom now on the horizon. But Lucas and his execs deny that “Star Wars” is a space race to solvency.

“Each year our business is better than ever,” says Lucasfilm Ltd. president Gordon Radley.

Lucas himself shrugs off the executive shuffle and says “Young Indy” and other non-hit efforts were fruitful experiments in new production techniques. He says his company does not stand or fall on the success of its film ventures. Problems with the neighbors, he asserts, are all but settled.

Technical freedom

What is important, in Lucas’ view, is that he and his empire have at last attained what the entire enterprise has striven for since the very beginning: the technical capability to make the movies Lucas wants to make.

The pivotal moment was “Jurassic Park,” Lucas says. “The fact that you can make a realistic thing, as real as anything on the set, and have it walk around and talk was the big breakthrough.”

Lucas’ business plan, extending fifteen years into the future, calls for the eventual consolidation of all Lucasfilm operations on the ranch and relies heavily on the idea – technologically a few years off – that all production will flow freely between the various divisions on digital systems.

“I don’t know another company like this one,” says Radley. His office is on the first floor of the elegantly styled Main House, a handcrafted and antique-appointed manse with a cavernous foyer and winding staircase so magnificent that Robin Williams, on first visit, is said to have cried out, “Tara! I’m home!”

Radley believes Lucasfilm is misunderstood because it is a privately held business that answers to no one but its sole owner and exists far from the center of the entertainment industry. After a decade with the company, Radley, an attorney, speaks of his boss with conviction and a sense of wonder, as if anticipating a listener’s disbelief.

“This is not a shareholder that is motivated out of a desire to make money,” insists Radley. “This is not an IPO kind of business strategy. This is not about having venture capital or third party investors demanding a return on investment within so many years, or being on a financial timetable.”

Although maintaining that ILM, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts are all profitable businesses that could stand on their own, Radley admits that service businesses don’t operate on great profit margins. “You don’t go into a business like ILM to get rich,” says Radley. “I suppose if George had invested in pork bellies he probably would have made a lot more money. Or if he had created an asset that he could then take public.”

Of course, there is one part of the company they can, in a broad sense, take public.

Cut to “Star Wars.”

Radley sketches a picture of a company that has wandered near and far, following the central vision of its owner – a vision that is about to reach its goal with Lucas’ return to the making of “Star Wars.”

And while Lucas is still in the midst of writing his epic, he appears to know how it all ends: “I know where I’ve been. I know where I’m going. I just don’t know where I am.”

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