The force is definitely with George Lucas. In the almost 50 years since he studied film at the University of Southern California and trekked to the coffeehouse-lined streets of San Francisco as a young film novice to watch short art house movies, Lucas has managed to amass a $3.2 billion empire. With a plethora of major motion picture directing credits to his name, and a diverse resume—which includes everything from writing and producing some of the most successful sci-fi films of all time to serving as the chairman and CEO of his own production company—the jack-of-all-trades has more than cemented his place in Hollywood history. On the heels of his latest labor of love, Red Tails and the recent 3D theatrical re-release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, BlackEnterprise.com Decodes the box office titan’s illustrious film career, philanthropic efforts and examines why the mastermind behind the first big budget all-Black action movie is no accidental billionaire. —Shydel James
On the Early Track to Success
Believe it or not, Lucas’s first love was not film. As a teenager, the California native dreamt of becoming a racecar driver, but a life-threatening car accident put a halt to his Speed Racer ambitions. He wound up attending the University of Southern California to study film. There, he honed his skills as a filmmaker, and achieved mainstream success seven years later with his second feature, American Graffiti. Not only was the 1973 coming-of-age flick a critical hit, earning Lucas Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, but it also raked in some serious dough. Costing an estimated $777,000 to produce, the film grossed $115 million domestically. That’s more than $50 for every dollar spent on production and distribution, making Lucas an instant millionaire before the age of 30.
Special Effects Wizard
In 1975, Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects shop to help create never-before-seen visuals for the original Star Wars film. Today, ILM is Hollywood’s go-to source for groundbreaking visual effects and computer generated imagery. The high-end special effects company has set the standard for visual effects, singlehandedly revolutionizing the way we watch movies, and is responsible for some of the most iconic eye-popping action sequences in cinematic history. The visual effects facility’s roster includes major box office hits like Jurassic Park, Transformers and Avatar. ILM, which has won over a dozen Oscars for visual effects, is also credited with creating the first completely computer-generated main character in the movie Dragonheart. Other lucrative subsidiaries of the entertainment mogul’s production company include Skywalker Sound, LucasArts, Lucas Books, Lucas Licensing, Lucas Online and Lucasfilm Animation.
The Stakes is High Profit
It’s no secret that Lucas’s much-adored sci-fi soap opera series, Star Wars, smashed records at the box office, catapulting his fortune and Hollywood star power to astronomical heights. Since its debut in 1977, the franchise has earned a total $4.4 billion worldwide. But it was the auteur’s ingenious decision to waive his director’s fee to the cult classic in exchange for 40% of the “stake profits,” and the licensing rights to the film’s merchandising that really paid off. According to the Biography Channel online, since 1977, the production studio thought the rights to be “worthless,” but have since been proven wrong as the Star Wars franchise acquired an approximate $20 million since the film’s initial release.
A Career in “Ruins”
During the 22-year gap between the original Star Wars trilogy and the three prequels that followed, Lucas could have easily rested on his laurels…and money. Instead, he continued to work tirelessly as a producer and writer, and struck gold again when he commissioned longtime pal Steven Spielberg to direct his archeological action-adventure, Indiana Jones. The franchise, which stars Harrison Ford as the main character, includes four films, spans 27 years and grossed nearly $2 billion. There are reports that a fifth installment is in the works with Lucas attached as the writer and executive producer.
The 2012 trailblazing drama, Red Tails, is the latest addition to the über-producer’s resume. The film tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black pilots to fight for the segregated U.S. Army during World War II. It took Lucas a staggering 23 years and $90 million of his own money to get the film made. While making the rounds to promote the project, Lucas revealed why studio heads were reluctant to green light his project. “It’s an all-Black movie,” Lucas told Jon Stewart. “I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘No, we don’t know how to market a movie like this.’” Some found Lucas’ candid publicity tour to be a divisive marketing ploy, while others used it as an opportunity to explore a supposed post racial Hollywood’s reluctance to produce films that showcase Black people as heroes. Either way, his diatribe spawned an Occupy Red movement on Facebook and Twitter, and galvanized people to support the film. Red Tails debuted at No. 2 its opening weekend, bringing in more than $18 million.
Lucas has been quite giving of his $3 billion-plus fortune over the years. In 2005, he contributed $1 million to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project in Washington D.C. In 2006, he made history—this time off the film set—by making the largest donation in USC history when he wrote his alma mater a check for $175 million “for the construction of new educational buildings and renovations of existing structures at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.” Then, the staunch supporter of President Obama donated over $30,000 to the Obama Victory Fund after the President’s historic win in 2008. The following year, the film mogul was awarded a Lincoln Medal along with Aretha Franklin and Sidney Poitier for his unwavering effort to integrate more technology-based learning into school curriculums through his foundation, The George Lucas Educational Foundation.