A new hope for 'Star Wars' fans as Lucas relinquishes his death grip on the money-spinning franchise
Published 02/12/2012 | 06:00
Since Disney bought Lucasfilm at the end of October for a cool $4.05bn (€3.14bn), the internet has been awash with overheated rumours about the possibility of further Star Wars films. Disney has confirmed it will indeed be making at least three new movies, beginning with the as yet untitled 'Episode VII', which will be released in 2015.
Though no director has been hired, and no actors cast, we do know that Michael Arndt, whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine, will be writing the script, and that veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan will write the two sequels.
Given the fact that Mr Kasdan was responsible for Return of the Jedi, generally regarded as the best film of the entire series, hopes are high that the new movies will restore the franchise's reputation, which was somewhat tarnished by the three prequels Mr Lucas released between 1999 and 2005.
And if you reckon that $4bn price tag sounds a bit steep, you might want to think again, because 35 years after the release of the first film, the Star Wars brand still seems to be a licence to print money.
The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) were roundly savaged by the critics, but still managed to earn more than $2bn between them. And the new films should be a lot more bankable, because they take up the story of Luke Skywalker where the original three films left off.
This raises the intriguing possibility that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher might get to reprise their characters in later years, and Fisher has joked that she wouldn't mind the opportunity of playing Mrs Han Solo.
So if Disney plays its cards right, the new films could be absolutely huge, and make that $4bn it paid George Lucas for the rights seem like a bargain.
Many people were surprised when Lucas agreed to sell the franchise, because it's been his pet project for 40 years, and a cash cow he has zealously guarded.
But it's well known he became increasingly exasperated by negative reactions to his recent prequels, and in January of this year, when asked about further Star Wars films, he said "why would I make any more. . . when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?"
So George has walked away from the franchise considerably richer – his own net worth is now estimated at more than $5bn – to pursue what he has described as smaller, art-house films.
But one wonders how easily he'll be able to turn his back on Star Wars. Because without it he might still be a jobbing director like his old friend Brian De Palma, who once told him his idea for a multipart space opera would never take off.
Star Wars only happened because Lucas couldn't buy the rights to Flash Gordon.
Born in Modesto, California, in 1944, George Lucas had grown up with a love of the 1940s adventure serials that would also provide the inspiration for Indiana Jones.
His favourite serial was Flash Gordon, and in the early 1970s he attempted to purchase the film rights to the character. When he couldn't afford them, he decided to write his own space story instead, that would be influenced by Japanese samurai legends and the films of Akira Kurosawa.
His earliest attempts at a Star Wars script introduced the concept of a Jedi father and son, though the family name was 'Starkiller', and the father was a hero and a general, rather than a disfigured, heavy-breathing villain.
Lucas spent several years honing and refining successive drafts of his story, and adding characters like the space smuggler Han Solo (initially a bright green alien) and Chewbacca, an eight-foot hairy alien based on the Lucas family dog, Indiana.
He thought it was brilliant, but at first no one wanted anything to do with it. In 1972, when Lucas first touted around Hollywood a 13-page treatment for a film called 'The Star Wars – The Story of Mace Windu', it was quickly rejected by United Artists and Universal.
But in June of 1973 he was lucky enough to show it to someone with a bit of vision.
When 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jnr read the sci-fi script he was bemused by the story and its rather pompous mythology, but decided to back it because he could see that George was talented.
But even Fox wasn't all that confident about the film's chances, and decided to hedge its bets. When Lucas pleaded for a rise in his directing fee, they told him he could have the entire sequel and prequel rights to Star Wars instead.
When shooting began in London's Elstree Studios in 1976, the crew reckoned that Lucas had been offered 100pc of nothing. They had scant respect for what they thought was a hopelessly grandiose children's film, and some of the actors weren't too impressed either.
Even his friend Harrison Ford balked at the oddness of the script: "You can type this shit, George," he is said to have remarked, "but you sure can't say it."
The toll of shooting in London, LA and Tunisia eventually told on Lucas, who was briefly hospitalised with hypertension.
And things didn't improve very much when he showed a rough cut to industry friends.
They were not impressed, and De Palma warned Lucas that he was about to become the laughing stock of Hollywood.
A rattled Lucas took note, and before he added his groundbreaking special effects, he called in Paul Hitsch and Richard Chew to completely re-edit the film.
No one was particularly confident in advance of the film's release, on May 25, 1977. A camp and wordy two-hour-long space drama starring Alec Guinness and a bunch of unknown actors didn't seem a hot prospect in an era dominated by conspiracy thrillers and disaster movies.
Within six months it had replaced Jaws as the highest earning film in American history, and went on to earn more than $220m during its initial release, or $850m when adjusted for inflation.
He blossomed, as a director, writer, producer and special effects innovator, and by the time he came to make the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980, he had three times the budget, a brilliant screenwriter in Lawrence Kasdan, and had established his own studio.
He never looked back.