George Lucas: ‘Star Wars’ Genius Got First Notice With Student Films

THX 1138, director and screenwriter George
Courtesy Everett Collection

To celebrate Variety’s 115th anniversary, we went to the archives to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars first landed in the pages of our magazine. Read more from the archives here.

George Lucas entered the movie pantheon in 1977 with “Star Wars.” But long before that, Lucas was on the radar of people in the industry.

Variety first mentioned him on Jan. 9, 1968, when he was part of the third annual National Student Film Fest competition. There were 153 entries and 46 finalists, and Lucas scored an impressive three nominations, for “6-18-67” (“A Desert Poem”); the docu “The Emperor,” and, in the dramatic competition, the sci-fi short “THX-1138 4EB.” He won for “THX.”

Francis Coppola (after a few esteemed films but before the mega-success of “The Godfather”) helped Lucas land a deal to make a 1971 feature version of “THX” at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. The film was an artful but bleak vision of the future and box office was underwhelming, so Coppola challenged him to create something for mainstream audiences. Lucas started “American Graffiti.” Universal execs weren’t enthused about the screenplay (by Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz) but liked the idea of a soundtrack using rock hits from 1962.

When they saw the final film, disappointed execs considered releasing it directly to television. But enthusiastic audiences at two previews made them reconsider. The film earned $115 million domestically, a huge return on a $750,000 investment.

Lucas was hot, and Fox offered him a great deal: He got 40% of the “Star Wars” profits and retained ownership of the sequels and merchandise.

Aside from the phenomenal success of the film, Lucas showed Hollywood how to rethink movies as a starting point for video games, theme-park attractions, TV animation and, of course, merchandise.

Also significant: Before “Star Wars,” visual effects were usually created with miniatures, but he helped move things into digital with Industrial Light & Magic (founded in 1975). He also created THX (which the company describes as “next-generation surround sound”) and built up Pixar (which started out as a high-end computer hardware company, before it revolutionized feature animation).

Lucas was born and raised in Modesto, Calif., obsessed with cars and racing, and wanted to pursue a career in that area. On June 12, 1962, just as he was graduating from Thomas Downey High School, his Fiat was hit by another car; Lucas was thrown out of the car when his seat belt snapped. The Fiat crashed into a tree and if he had remained inside he almost certainly would have died.

It was a wakeup call. Instead of devoting his life to cars, he enrolled in Modesto Junior College and then film school.

After “Star Wars,” he could have been the king of Hollywood. But he wanted to forge his own path, rather than succeed via the studio establishment. He created a film center first in Northern California’s Marin County, then at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Instead of becoming the king of Hollywood, Lucas became king of his own world — and  a role model for dreamers, mavericks and student filmmakers around the world.