George Lucas Recalls Early Cannes Days With ‘THX 1138’, Besting Studios With ‘American Graffiti’ & ‘Star Wars’; “The Fact That People Make Money In The Movie Business Is A Myth”

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“We weren’t really that interested in making money, we were interested in making movies,” said Star Wars franchise architect George Lucas about the early days of his career with mentor Francis Ford Coppola in a Cannes sit down discussion today.

In a wide-ranging chat before a packed Salle Debussy Theatre crowd, Lucas, who is here to receive an honorary Palme d’or at the 77th edition shared how his THX-1138 was accepted into a new section at Cannes, the Director’s Fortnight, back in 1971, but Warner Bros didn’t want to send the filmmaker or his co-scribe Walter Murch to France for the premiere. The duo scraped their money together, went to their own premiere in a side street venue, but snuck in because they didn’t have tickets. Years later he was asked by the French media why he didn’t go to the press conference of THX 1138, and Lucas said “we didn’t know about it.”

Originally United Artists, known to be filmmaker friendly, bought Lucas’ scripts for American Graffiti and Star Wars, but they didn’t like the former. Lucas spent a year getting American Graffiti out of their hands and into Universal’s. Under the American Zoetrope indie studio of Coppola, the Finian’s Rainbow filmmaker and Lucas were riding off the wave of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider at the time; that title a wake-up call for studios in regards to what young people craved. Made for $750K, American Graffiti tested through the roof in its first cut before an audience. “It was like a rock concert,” said Lucas about the first screening. But Universal wasn’t convinced. After the screening, Lucas faced a blustering Uni exec. The studio almost jettisoned the movie to TV, and it took two more test screenings on the lot before they pivoted American Graffiti to theatrical. Uni initially put the 1950s-set Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfus, Harrison Ford ensemble in a handful of theaters and it took off ultimately grossing $115M stateside.

Lucas said, “American Graffiti was the first time anybody made money on net.” Typically, only stars like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman could make money on gross, and nobody made movie on net. Lucas with his lawyer went about drafting their own contract for Star Wars with Fox, getting the monies on licensing –unheard of at the time- and control of the sequel rights. Lucas intially wrote a 210 page script for Star Wars and knew there would be more movies. Furthermore, he didn’t want to be held up by the studio blocking the greenlight of a sequel after the experiences he went through with THX 1138 and American Graffiti (Lucas said that after the release of THX 1138, the studio tried to demand their money back from the filmmakers).

The rest is history as far as his success with the space opera franchise. “The fact that people make money in the movie business is a myth,” said Lucas. Faith in Star Wars before release by Fox had waned since they greenlit it at the time. First weekend the pic received a theatrical release in 43 70MM theaters. But then it took off like wildfire with Fox committing to a 1,000 theater run by the pic’s 11th weekend, unheard of at the time in regards to a wide release. On making Star Wars, Lucas said he intentionally made the feature largely in the U.K. to keep away from the studio. “Someone from the studio was there but they gave up on telling us what to do.”

Lucas would spend ten years perfecting the digital technology to make Star Wars Episodes I-III. When Phantom Menace was released in 1999, he was shocked how fans and critics slammed the movie for being geared toward 12 year olds. But that was always Lucas’ m.o. with the original Star Wars movie in 1977: To make a movie for kids, which was some of the same criticism he received during that pic’s release.

Lucas received a two-minute plus standing ovation before having a chat with French film reporter Didier Allouch — an amount of time that neared Coppola’s three-minute standing ovation before the world premiere of his Megalopolis here at Cannes.

Lucas was asked toward the end about his thoughts on A.I. but he didn’t respond, not so much as sidestepping, but he was consumed with his memories in what was a 82 minute discussion.

Lucas credited-movies have been to Cannes four times: THX 1138 in 1971, Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in 2023 (he wasn’t in attendance last year).

Summed Lucas on an axiom of his career: “I’m a stubborn guy and didn’t want people telling me how to make my movies.”

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