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Yet it is a truism about American directors: you become who you were. Coppola, the former theater director and son of a classical musician, took the arty road, making operatic, actor-centric films that sometimes (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) found large audiences. Lucas, who had written a third-grade theme that began, "Once upon a time in the land of Zoom..." and loved to tinker with cars, replayed his Modesto, Calif., adolescence in American Graffiti. Then he reworked the beloved comic books and B-movie serials of his youth into Star Wars, a film as stylized and sterile as a piece of abstract animation, yet an adventure potent enough to please mass audiences.
Kids watching the new Star Wars films may think movies were always like this, because so many are like them now. But Lucas' first Jedi epic was, in its way, revolutionary. It established sci-fi as a hot genre and teen boys as an audience that made hits by buying tickets early and often. It spurred the toy industry with its synoptic range of characters. "Star Wars was so 'toyetic,'" says Brad Globe, merchandising executive at DreamWorks. "It wasn't just one character or one vehicle; it was a whole world that was created, then extended through each movie and beyond."
Thanks to Lucas and his brilliant team, special effects became the prettiest new tool in the movie paint box. "Star Wars convinced filmmakers that you can do anything bigger and better to enhance the shot," says Jason Barlow, lead CG animator for the effects company RIOT. "Now, with digital technology, real magic can happen." The movie even changed the way films are financed. Notes cultural critic John Seabrook: "Because of its huge box office, it interested Wall Street people who had previously seen Hollywood as small potatoes. The Star Wars numbers brought a new variety of investor and financial manager into movies."
Now Lucas was Hollywood's wonder boy. He could direct anything he wanted, at a time when directors were being canonized as artists-auteurs. Instead, Lucas passed the directorial reins of The Empire Strikes Back to middle-aged, small-drama helmer Irvin Kershner. Why did he do it?
Granted, the man had his hands full. "Here I find myself having to do a lot of design work on Empire and get the script done while I'm also starting a bunch of companies--ILM, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm. I was starting a video-game company. I was developing digital film editing. At the same time I was starting Pixar"--yes, he was the original owner of that pioneer computer-animation studio, then sold it to Steve Jobs in 1985--"and launching digital animation and digital filmmaking. I was working on Raiders of the Lost Ark," which he executive-produced and co-wrote. "And I was self-financing a movie." After Star Wars, Lucas determined to be his own boss, own his own films. With the booty from his hit movie and its even more profitable merchandise, he paid for Empire himself, then leased it to 20th Century Fox.