Steven Spielberg & George Lucas’s Journeys from Film School to Box Office Hits

UPDATED: May 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 3, 2009
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are among the most influential filmmakers in the world. Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio and Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic visual effects company have each created and helped create myriad hits. The following is an excerpt from the June 2000 SUCCESS magazine featuring Spielberg and Lucas, written by Scott Smith and Robert T. Wazeka.

Close friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have had a great impact on the entertainment industry. Most famous for fantasies such as Jaws and Star Wars, respectively, both have recently taken on more private roles as family men.

Their fantasies, the careers that followed and their personal convictions, as well as their entrepreneurial paths—from dedication to their art to founding businesses to giving back to the community—make them our choice as SUCCESS entrepreneurs of the decade.

Steven Spielberg & George Lucas’s teen years

The two could not have been more different at the outset. Steven Spielberg’s interest in filmmaking led to him acquiring the nickname Cecil B. DeSpielberg from his mother. From the first, he demonstrated the traits for which he would later become famous. His interest was in the details, in making movies that were realistic, in perfecting the skill of convincing others to work with him. By the time he was 12 or 13, he had already envisioned receiving an Oscar and had begun rehearsing his acceptance speech.

On the other hand, Lucas’ father wanted him to go into the family’s stationery and office-equipment business in Modesto, California, but his son had other ideas. “One thing is for sure,” Lucas, in an interview, said he once told his father, “I’ll never go into business.” Then he added, “and here I am heading three corporations.”

“I wanted to go to art school, but my dad wouldn’t pay for it,” Lucas said in a speech at the University of California at Berkeley in February 2000. “A friend told me to come to USC and major in cinematography. It was an easy major, like P.E., and the department was right next door to the girls’ dorm.”

Their early visions

From the beginning, Lucas envisioned a career for himself outside the traditional studio system. “I started out thinking I was going to be a documentary cameraman and editor,” he says. “I came up through the very beginning of cinema verité, so it was like a very big rush. It was very important, and we were working from these old documentary constructs that were almost dramatic film; recreations they were called.”

Spielberg, on the other hand, headed straight for the mainstream—at first. He was so eager to learn everything he could about the business that he approached famous actors such as Cary Grant and top directors such as William Wyler and persuaded them to meet with him.

Even movie critic Pauline Kael termed Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express in 1974, “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.” But it was with Jaws the following year that Spielberg became a household name.

Steven Spielberg & George Lucas as auteurs

Spielberg “escalated the perception of the film director as auteur, as the ‘author’ of his movie and the primary reason for its success, rather than the traditional view that a movie made it big because of its stars,” claims Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a trustee professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “By wrestling away creative autonomy from the studios and remaking the image of directors, who had been something of comic figures with berets and megaphones until then, he became the biggest recruiter for film schools they’ve ever seen.”

Which is ironic, because two film schools rejected Spielberg for poor grades—University of Southern California rejected him three times—and he dropped out of the Long Beach State University film program to start directing at Universal full-time.

From the beginning, Lucas sought funding outside normal studio channels. His first feature film, THX 1138, an innovative science fiction film, was financed by Francis Ford Coppola, who advanced Lucas $777,777. The film was a commercial failure. 

Lucas emphasizes again and again that the central challenge in filmmaking is, and always will be, funding. Moreover, you have to decide who the audience is going to be: “What you really want to do is control your material, but then you have to find a market. You’re making films for an audience, but for how big a group of people you get to determine.”

License to thrill

No one helped grow this industry and further push Hollywood to become a worldwide phenomenon more than Spielberg, “a marketing and licensing genius,” says Ryan Schinman, co-founder of Mayflower Entertainment. “He was one of the first to do a video game and product placement, which is now an important budget source for even small independents.”

“Steven Spielberg’s first films were made at a time when directors were the most important people in Hollywood, and his more recent ones at a time when marketing controls the industry. That he has remained the most powerful filmmaker in the world during both periods says something for his talent and his flexibility,” observed movie reviewer Roger Ebert in a 1998 Time magazine article.

He has both adapted to new conditions and shaped these forces in ways that have enabled him to become the highest-grossing film director.

Similarly, Lucas’s phenomenal success with American Graffiti allowed him the freedom to go his own creative way with Star Wars. “I feel like a kid in a candy store,” he says, talking about the possibilities that lie before him.

Spielberg and Lucas have succeeded because of their obsessive interest in details. Both have pursued their passions. Financial success and critical acclaim couldn’t help but follow.

Steven Spielberg & George Lucas’s focus on family

Both men have shifted their focus to family—both are married and have several adopted children. Both are giving back through their charitable foundations as profits from the fantasies they share with their audiences support causes they believe in and provide opportunities for others to live their dreams.

This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock

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