While there are many polarizing views around him as a filmmaker, George Lucas is not only the most impactful figure in modern film, but also possibly one of the most important to the art form as a whole. For a career spanning forty years in the film industry, many of the man’s contributions to film have been overlooked as his once adoring fan base have completely turned their back on him in the last few decades. While it is near impossible to change the general conception that Lucas mismanaged the Star Wars Prequels or The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it is careless to ignore his career in the larger context and discuss just how much this one man has altered the course of modern film history in Hollywood.
As mentioned in the introduction, Lucas is more than just Star Wars, however one cannot accurately discuss his career without at least discussing the saga in some regard. When the original Star Wars was released in 1977 Hollywood was in the middle of one of its most transformative decades. While the fifties were a big time for Hollywood studios with the release of epics such as The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and Ben-Hur. During the sixties studios started to find out film goers where no longer interested in these types of films. Needless to say Hollywood burnt out audiences with the genre (much like what is going to happen with Superhero films in the next decade) and the films became very difficult for the films to make a profit. Studios found this out the hard way after a few of these epics flopped and almost bankrupt studios overnight. This change in the Hollywood landscape paved the way for a young wave of new directors such as Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Brain De Palma to quickly move up the Hollywood ladder as studios were desperate to find new types of films to bring people back to the theater. This group not only brought audiences back to the theater, but also brought them in a new way.
While Spielberg laid the groundwork for the first true blockbuster in 1975 with Jaws, Lucas exploited the concept and film audiences. Previously, films were not released all around the country at the same time like they are today. In the past, films would have a shortened run in one geographical area and then move on to the next region. This meant that films were not a cultural phenomenon that everyone in the country was taking about at the same time as it could take months for a film to reach every part of the country. Going against the trend, Spielberg released Jaws during the summer (at the time a season where many did not go to the theater) all across the country at once to show the true impact that films could have on culture when everyone was able to see it at the same time. While this was a monumental event for film, Lucas understood this could mean more than just bigger box office numbers. That is why after his success with American Graffiti he did not take the pay bump from Fox for writing, directing, and producing Star Wars and instead secured the rights for Star Wars merchandise and any sequels. In present day, as we eat toast from our Darth Vader toaster or empty our Darth Vader piggy bank, one could understand why Lucas would want the merchandising rights to Star Wars instead of a measly few hundred thousand dollars. But one must understand that back in the 70’s, prior to Star Wars, merchandise from films was non-existent. Since the idea of films being a cultural phenomenon just become a thing two years prior no one understood the potential money to be made by blockbusters from merchandise. Since this deal Lucas had orchestrated, Star Wars has generated over $13 billion in merchandise revenue compared to the $6.2 billion the series has generated at the box office. Once Hollywood realized that there was more money to be made through merchandise than the box office, the entire industry shifted to making films and television shows that merchandise lines could be made out of such as Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, or any Disney Princess film for that matter. Even today, Hollywood is still obsessed with making these films as evident by the $10 billion the Cars franchise has made in merchandise in the last ten years. While this impact alone is enough to credit Lucas for being responsible for one of the largest changes in Hollywood, we have not even begun to tackle the changes in film production his postproduction companies are responsible for.
It is common knowledge that at the time Star Wars was cutting edge in terms of visual effects and won the Academy Award for best visual effects. Never before has a filmmaker used models to the degree Lucas to depict the intense action sequences that Star Wars is known for. However, what is not as highly publicized is the effort that was put into the films sound design that also won the film the Academy Award for sound. While Lucas could have taken advantage of being the industry leader in both technological fields and waited for others in the industry to catch up to his level, he opted instead to further fund his motion picture production properties that the entire industry would use to make his cutting edge technology, the industry standard. As a result, Industrial Light and Magic became the leading visual effects production house, while Skywalker Sound became the leading post-production sound-editing house. While the average filmgoer may not recognize these names of off the top of their heads, Industrial Light and Magic alone can be found in the credits of five of the top ten highest grossing films in 2015, which alone totaled over $6.5 billion in box office revenue. Not to mention, that the division that went on to become Pixar Animation Studios was actually a division within Industrial Light and Magic. Meanwhile, Skywalker sound has worked on over 100 films in the last two years and won 18 Academy Awards for work that they have done.
After outlining the changes in film history that George Lucas is responsible for, one could build a strong argument that without his inclusion in the film industry, the medium would be vastly different than it is today. Although, one could also argue that the commerciality of films in the last 30 years has ruined the quality of films as now studios only pander to create family friendly films. Conversely, the surplus of money that studios have obtained from outside merchandising channels has also allowed them to take more risks on films and grow the number of films made annually. Whatever side you take on that argument, I believe everyone is on the same page in regards to the benefits Lucas has made to the postproduction phase of filmmaking. Decades from now, once the blemishes of Lucas’s career that are the Prequels are forgotten about by the general population, society will look back on and fully understand the legacy that George Lucas has made on the film industry.
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