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Reel to Real: 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 have created one hit after another, grossing billions at the box office. The following is an excerpt from the June 2000 SUCCESS featuring Spielberg and Lucas, written by Scott Smith and Robert T. Wazeka.

Close friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have had a greater impact on the entertainment industry than anyone else in the 20th century. Most famous for fantasies such as Star Wars and E.T., both have more recently dedicated themselves to public projects of historical significance, and at the height of their careers, to more private roles as family men.

Their fantasies, the careers that followed, and their personal convictions mirror those of the baby boomers, the largest generation in American history, to which they belong. 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.

The two could not have been more different at the outset. Steven Spielberg made so many home movies as a child that he acquired the nickname Cecil B. DeSpielberg.

From the first, he demonstrated the traits for which he later would become famous. His interest was in the details, in making movies that were realistic, in perfecting the persuasive skills he would use so effectively in convincing others to work with him.

By the time he was 12, he had already envisioned receiving an Oscar and had begun rehearsing his acceptance speech.

Lucas, on the other hand, was emphatically not interested in the mainstream of business or filmmaking. Lucas’s father wanted George to go into the family’s stationery and office-equipment business in Modesto, Calif., but his son had other ideas. “One thing is for sure,” Lucas says he once told his father, “I’ll never go into business.” Then he adds, “and here I am heading three corporations.”

“I wanted to go to art school, but my dad wouldn’t pay for it,” Lucas said recently in a speech at the University of California at Berkeley. “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.”

 

Early Vision

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; re-creations 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, persuaded them to have lunch with him, and made them his teachers and mentors.

By the time he began making commercial films, his personal and technical abilities were well-honed.

Even the famously tough movie critic Pauline Kael termed Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express in 1974, “one of the most phenomenal directorial debuts in the history of the movies.” But it was with Jaws the following year, at age 28, that Spielberg became a formidable power in the industry.

 

An Auteur Is Born

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, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and president of the Popular Culture Association. “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 several film schools rejected Spielberg for poor grades, and he dropped out of the Long Beach State University film program to start making movies at Universal full time.

From the beginning, Lucas sought funding outside normal studio channels, which he still believes is the key to being able to make the kind of groundbreaking films he wanted to make. In fact, Lucas’s first feature film, THX 1138, an innovative science fiction film, was financed entirely through one person, Francis Ford Coppola, who advanced Lucas a lucky $777,777. The film succeeded critically, though not commercially. His advice to a documentary filmmaking class at UC Berkeley: “Go to a place with the least amount of people overseeing your work, and then take the money and go as far away as you can [to make your film].”

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, a licensing agent and president of marketing firm CNB Entertainment’s sports and entertainment division. “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.” With the financial stakes getting higher and higher, major studio executives became increasingly more risk-averse. They took away some of the hard-won authority from producers and directors and gave it to marketing departments.

“That Spielberg has remained the most powerful filmmaker in the world during both periods says something for his talent and his flexibility,” observes movie reviewer Roger Ebert.

He has both adapted to new conditions and shaped these forces in ways that have enabled him to direct or produce 10 of the 25 top-grossing movies of all time.

Similarly, Lucas’s phenomenal success has allowed him the financial freedom to go his own creative way. “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.

 

Focus on the Family

Both men have shifted their focus to family—they say it’s the most important thing in their lives. Lucas is a single parent; Spielberg is married. Both have several adopted children. Both are increasingly interested in giving back through their charitable foundations.

Lucas and Spielberg continue to blaze trails through Hollywood as entrepreneurs. The inspiration they provide promises to touch many more lives. Profits from the fantasies they share with their audiences are providing real foundations to support causes they believe in and opportunities for others to live their dreams.

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