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Force that drove George Lucas to redefine moviemaking


Just a few years before that conversation with Rose, Lucas sold his film company to Disney for a staggering $ 4.05 billion, instantly transforming him into America’s 94th richest man. Today his net worth hovers around $ 5.4 billion, making him far and away the wealthiest film mogul Hollywood has ever spawned.

But what is truly fascinating — and ironic — about Brian Jay Jones’s George Lucas, A Life, is how the Star Wars creator acquired his immense fame and fortune by thumbing his nose at Hollywood and, in the process, both reinventing filmmaking through innovative technologies (most of whose development he financed himself) and unleashing the power of independent filmmakers by unclenching the grip of the studios on the movie business.

Lucas’s titanic achievement is even more stunning when you consider his modest roots: he is from, ironically, Modesto, a small city in northern California where his dad owned a stationery store that he expected his son to take over. The taciturn young Lucas had other ideas, heading to film school at the University of Southern California (USC) where he fell in with a new generation of cineastes — among them, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola — who would be his co-conspirators in the takedown of the old Hollywood order.

After USC, Lucas seemed initially intent on making small art-house flicks — “tone poems,” he called them — but his boyhood love of comic books, fairy tales, Sunday morning serials and Flash Gordon spawned the idea of a sci-fi thriller in a “galaxy far, far away,” and Star Wars was born.

Blockbusters quickly usurped the tone poems. But the fiercely independent Lucas — “control freak” might be a better term — quickly became disenchanted with the film industry’s business model. “The studios borrowed money to make our film … Why don’t we borrow the money ourselves?” he asked. And that’s what he did. Further upping the ante, Lucas relocated to San Francisco, putting real distance between himself and the Hollywood bean counters.

Lucas’s new business model worked brilliantly as revenues from his self-financed blockbusters grew — and so did their budgets. But Lucas rolled the dice over and over, reinvesting all his profits into yet another Star Wars sequel. “Everything I make goes back into making something else,” says Lucas. “If we make a mistake, we die.”

It seemed to work.

“By mid-1978, the USC mafia — and Spielberg — were seen as Hollywood’s most successful filmmaking rebels, doing everything their own way, making pictures that aligned with their own visions, swapping points with one another and doing it outside the studio system,” writes Jones.

Of course, Lucas paid a price for his huge success — his marriage floundered, throwing him into an emotional abyss — and in many ways his shy, aloof, taciturn personality seems inherently at odds with working closely with actors and artists. As Harrison Ford observes, “I have a sneaking suspicion that if there was a way to make movies without actors, George would do it.”

Still, Lucas inspired loyalty among his fellow film workers at Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm’s lush campus in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where he controlled everything. “It was the perception among staff that Lucas could do no wrong … It’s a George thing,” said director Bob Doris. “He’s successful at creating a myth for himself.”

But after finishing George Lucas, A Life, I’m not convinced it’s a myth. And maybe neither does his adoring public.

Lucasfilm — including the Star Wars franchise — was sold to Disney in 2012, where they quickly moved to produce yet another sequel, something Lucas earlier claimed he wouldn’t do. The Revenge of the Sith, the last one he made, was to have been the final instalment.

But the Disney-produced, George Lucas-free Star Wars, The Force Awakens, released in 2015, did enormous business, generating over $ 2 billion in revenues worldwide. For Lucas, watching the film was “an awkward reality.” And given his alpha-plus personality, that’s hardly surprising.

Still, the film’s immense success speaks perhaps to the enduring power of the force George Lucas awakened.

Robert Collison is a Toronto writer and editor.

TORONTO STAR | ENTERTAINMENT

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