George Lucas - A Super-Producer's History

The force is strong in this one.

by | May 14, 2008 | Comments

Uber-producer George Lucas has always been synonymous with big-budget blockbusters (you might remember the first film he produced — a modest little space opera called Star Wars) and this month sees the long-awaited turn of one of his most iconic creations, Indiana Jones. The four-time Oscar nominee has also directed and written films, rode the American New Wave with buddies Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and created landmark production companies Lucasfilm, Skywalker Sound, Industrial Light & Magic, and Pixar, all of which would have been enough to earn Lucas a place movie history.

Although Lucas also involved himself in smaller projects, like the gloriously 3-dimensional Captain EO short and idol Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-nominated Kagemusha, the legacy of Modesto’s prodigal son remains strongest in his history producing some of the most successful — or at least, memorable — blockbusters of the past three decades.

Read on for RT’s chronological highlights of the producing career of George Lucas outside of the Indiana Jones franchise.

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Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Tomatometer: 95%, dir. George Lucas

Gross: $775 million

George Lucas the Producer hit the ground running when, at the age of 33, he introduced Star Wars to the world. His long-gestating “space opera” about a youngster named Luke Skywalker who gets involved in an intergalactic battle was also his third directorial effort (after debuting with the dystopian tale THX 1138 and the semi- autobiographical American Graffiti).

With $11 million from 20th Century Fox — the only studio to give Lucas’ vision a chance — Lucas shot and produced what would later be known as Episode IV: A New Hope, which IMDB currently names as the #2 domestic grossing release of all time (behind 1997’s Titanic). Star Wars subsequently became a billion dollar film, TV and merchandising franchise — and inspired Lucas to form the digital effects company Industrial Light & Magic. Star Wars Kid thanks you, George.


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Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Tomatometer: 97%, dir. Irvin Kershner

Gross: $538 million

After the overwhelming success of Star Wars, Lucas was able to declare his independence from the studio system by self-financing his sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Popularly celebrated as a superior film to its predecessor, Empire took Lucas (and the fledgling ILM) to new levels of production, continuing the saga with elaborate space fights, composite landscape effects, and strange new locations like the ice planet Hoth and Cloud City, home of Lando Calrissian. Empire also featured the franchise debut of Master Jedi Yoda and more than tripled the opening weekend returns of Episode IV. Coincidence not, think we.


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Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (1983)
Tomatometer: 75%, dir. Richard Marquand

Gross: $475 million

By the third installment of the Star Wars series (Episode VI, the final chronological chapter in the Star Wars mythology) Lucas was in full-steam producer mode, organizing his schedule, budget, and concept art well before handing scripting duty to Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan. Directing duties were handed to Richard Marquand, who was handpicked by Lucas after his previous choices — Steven Spielberg and David Lynch — were not available. Despite receiving a cooler critical and commercial reception than its predecessors, Return of the Jedi raked in more than $475 million worldwide — and, more importantly, gave us the gift of Ewoks.


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Labyrinth (1986)
Tomatometer: 58%, dir. Jim Henson

Gross: $12 million domestic

After working closely in the Star Wars series with Muppet master Jim Henson, who helped create the syntax-challenged Yoda, Lucas produced the Henson-directed Labyrinth. A coming-of-age fantasy tale starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, the film was considered a box office failure, grossing only $12 million of its $25 million budget; years later, however, Labyrinth is considered a cult classic. The film’s fantastical sets and creatures were appropriately inventive — with special effects courtesy of ILM — resulting in a mix of childlike escapism and grown-up intrigue that bears the creative stamp of both masters.

Video — Behold, “The imagination of Jim Henson…the wizardry of George Lucas!”

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Howard the Duck (1986)

Tomatometer: 19%, dir. Willard Huyck

Gross: $37 million

Released about a month after Labyrinth, Howard the Duck became Lucas’ second flop of 1986 — not the best summer of his career, to say the least. Directed by Willard Huyck, a frequent collaborator of Lucas’ (who co-wrote American Graffiti, Temple of Doom, Howard the Duck and the later Radioland Murders with his wife and partner, Gloria Katz), the sci-fi comedy about a humanoid talking alien duck stuck on Earth eventually made back its $37 million budget — barely. It’s not only Lucas’ worst-reviewed film, but also the career lows for stars Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins.

Video — Look for the “Breeders of the Lost Stork” movie poster…

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Willow (1988)

Tomatometer: 43%, dir. Ron Howard

Gross: $57 million

American Graffiti alum Ron Howard directed Willow based on a story by Lucas, a Tolkienesque fantasy epic about a little man (Warwick Davis) charged with protecting a baby girl from an evil queen. With inspired casting (Val Kilmer as Madmartigan) and epic-scale production design, it seemed things might fall into place to gave Lucas another hit movie. Unfortunately for him, the pic only grossed $57 million — a nice profit over its estimated $35 million budget, but hardly enough success to justify any sequels (though Lucas has hinted at the possibility of a Willow TV series).


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Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Tomatometer: 86%, dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Gross: $19 million

A notorious falling out with old friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola over 1979’s Apocalypse Now (which Lucas was originally going to direct) was seemingly patched up by the time Lucas produced Coppola’s biopic about car manufacturer Preston Tucker. The two had joined forces two years earlier to create Michael Jackson’s 3D experience, Captain EO, for Disney; while Tucker: The Man and His Dream was no box office success, it did earn the approval of critics and three Oscar nominations.


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The Land Before Time (1988)

Tomatometer: 77%, dir. Don Bluth

Gross: $84 million

Lucas and fellow Indiana Jonesers Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall teamed up to produce this popular animated adventure about prehistoric dinosaurs on a journey for survival. Directed by Disney vet Don Bluth (An American Tail,The Secret of NIMH), the franchised proved so fruitful that it spawned a whopping thirteen subsequent direct-to-video sequels, though all were absent of Lucas and Co.


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Radioland Murders (1994)

Tomatometer: 20%, dir. Mel Smith

Gross: $1.3 million domestic

After setting it aside for years in favor of his other projects, Lucas brought Radioland Murders to life. Judging from the terrible box office reception, perhaps he should have squeezed it in between Star Wars episodes with Steve Martin in the lead as allegedly intended. The slapstick-fueled throwback to the days of old-timey radio shows, where a murder mystery envelops a station’s cast and crew, grossed just $1.3 million in theaters.


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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Tomatometer: 64%, dir. George Lucas

Gross: $924 million

After a string of hit-and-miss standalone films, Lucas returned to his bread and butter: the Star Wars franchise. Despite being the lowest-reviewed of all the Star Wars films, Episode I: The Phantom Menace effectively rebooted Lucas’ beloved series over two decades after the theatrical debut of A New Hope, becoming the top grossing film of 1999. Also receiving a mixed reaction was introduction of Jar Jar Binks – one of the more annoying characters in the entire Lucasverse.


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Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

Tomatometer: 67%, dir. George Lucas

Gross: $649 million

The prequel trilogy really heated up with Attack of the Clones, which mirrored the second film in the original trilogy in the noted heating up of its main romance — that between Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and young Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Shot entirely with groundbreaking digital cameras, Attack of the Clones was also the costliest Star Wars film to make, though it more than quintupled its $120 million budget in gross returns.


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Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Tomatometer: 79%, dir. George Lucas

Gross: $849 million

The final (in release order) and most terrifying of the Star Wars films opened to huge numbers domestically and overseas, thanks to a Cannes film festival debut and a worldwide day-and-date opening. Giving closure to the origin story of Jedi-turned-villain Darth Vader that begun nearly three decades earlier, Revenge of the Sith marked a fantastically successful coda to Lucas’ exhaustive, career-defining relationship with Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Anakin Skywalker, and sealed his position as one of the most profitable mainstream producers of all time.


Check out our countdown of Harrison Ford’s best film performances and more from our Indiana Jonesin’ retrospective here.