From empire fighter to empire builder

How Hollywood outsider George Lucas went Force and multiplied

If any of George Lucas’ nerdy friends at USC film school had told him that he was destined to be the focus of a $4 billion corporate deal, he would have responded that they must be smoking something (Lucas himself never smoked). Yet by selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Co. Lucas now finds himself a 68-year-old filmmaker with a personal fortune well in excess of $7 billion and a lot of time on his hands.

The Lucas legend is all the more intriguing because it had such a bumpy start. His first sci-fi movie, “THX-1138,” was enough of a flop to get Lucas and his pal Francis Coppola kicked off the Warner Bros. lot (they also had run up considerable development costs). His next benefactor, Universal, refused to distribute “American Graffiti” after a disastrous preview (the studio later changed its mind). Reacting to all this, Lucas was so suspicious of Hollywood and antagonistic toward its executives that he and his then 22-year-old agent, Jeff Berg, struggled fretfully to set up a much more ambitious picture, “Star Wars,” at 20th Century Fox.

Of course, the negotiation was resolved with Lucas closing a deal that itself seems like science fiction by today’s standards — he received both sequel rights and merchandising. That coup marked the bedrock of the Lucas empire.

And Disney’s acquisition of that empire itself represents a coup for Robert Iger, Disney’s acquisitive CEO (witness his buyouts of Pixar and Marvel). The pricetag may seem high, but Disney envisions a new cycle of “Star Wars” sequels accompanied by merchandising and theme-park blitzes. Having paid $7.4 billion for Pixar and $4 billion for the superheroes at Marvel, Iger clearly finds Lucas a superhero in his own right.

All of which is fascinating to Lucas’ friends, who remember the frail and extremely shy film nerd who was consistently rebuffed by Hollywood four decades ago. Like his USC classmates at the time (Randal Kleiser, John Milius and Walter Murch among them), Lucas was caught up in the technique and technology of filmmaking but inept at dealing with people — especially actors and executives. Actors summoned to audition for “American Graffiti” remember sitting opposite the young filmmaker, with no conversation being exchanged at all — just a silent stare.

When his friend Coppola, himself socially awkward, invited Lucas to start a renegade film company in San Francisco (American Zoetrope), Lucas was grateful to flee Hollywood. Coppola helped round up funding for “American Graffiti” in 1973 and Lucas helped Coppola edit his cut of “The Conversation,” a project that seemed to defy completion (it was released in 1974).

Throughout this period Lucas’ sensibilities were undergoing a quiet transformation. Growing up in a conventional middle-class Methodist household, Lucas was becoming a “Methodist-Buddhist,” as he explained it. His marriage to Marcia Lucas ended — she had been his anchor as well as his editor. Through it all, Lucas was learning how to deal with his new status as a mogul as well as a celebrity.

But he remained a control freak, presiding intently over his technology and filmmaking holdings. Some of his associates are thus surprised at his apparent willingness to surrender control of further “Star Wars” sequels — a domain he’d always protected. The films will now be supervised by Kathleen Kennedy, the new head of Lucasfilm, who will in turn report to Alan Horn, the new film chief at Disney.

What will Lucas do next? Friends talk about his interest in his foundation, which focuses on innovation in education. He also may return to where he started — directing small films that dealt with experimental themes and technologies.

Lucas originally conceived of “Star Wars” as both a personal and an experimental film; its enormous public acceptance took him by surprise. He may now find himself amid still further surpises.

As George Lucas searches for a new identity, some wonder if the Disney brand itself may encounter an identity crisis.

Historically, the principal mission of the company was to create Disney-branded films. Walt Disney himself liked to point out that Disneyland itself was built around the mythic figures of his film world. He surely would have been baffled to review a Disney release schedule dominated by brands like Pixar, Marvel, DreamWorks, Bruckheimer and Lucas.

The official response from Robert Iger is that there will still be room for Disney films — that will be one of the key responsibilities of Horn, who Iger brought in to preside over the company’s film ventures. Since Horn is a gracious man and a superb diplomat, it was assumed his main mission would be to tamp down potential tensions between the various newly acquired brands. Marvel alone has a formidible slate including sequels to “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers” (which grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide). All that gives Marvel a lot of marketing muscle.

So will there still be room for corny old Disney movies?

Iger and Horn say “yes.” Old Walt would surely second that opinion.

Whither Walt’s vision?