The Business Behind Star Wars: A "Prof Talk" by Riccardo Maiolini

While Star Wars may as well be the best science-fiction saga ever made, not everyone knows that the production went through numerous ups and downs before garnering its reputation.

JCU Management professor Riccardo Maiolini gave a lecture on the Business of Star Wars on March 19 as part of the “Prof Talks series.” Professor Maiolini started by talking about the director who conceived and produced the famous Star Wars saga: George Lucas. American Graffiti (1973) Lucas’s first collaboration with producer Gary Kurtz, had a budget of fewer than 1 million dollars. The film was nominated for five Oscars and earned 50 million dollars worldwide.

Before the release of American Graffiti, Lucas came up with the idea of producing a “space opera,” in other words, a saga based on outer space adventures. Science-fiction films were not big in Hollywood at the time but this did not discourage Lucas and Kurtz from writing a 12-page treatment and sending it to several Hollywood Studios. The feedback they received was quite blunt: the story was too long, too complex, and too dense to be squeezed into a single movie. Nonetheless, 20th Century Fox decided to give the duo some money to flesh out the script. That’s why Lucas and Kurtz decided to split the story into three different movies. The production of Star Wars began in March 1976 in Indonesia. The budget that Lucas and Kurtz requested for what was going to become the saga’s first film, A New Hope (1977), was 18 million dollars; however, 20th Century Fox offered them only 7.5 million dollars. At the end, a compromise was reached and Lucas and Kurtz received 11 million dollars to start producing their innovative “space opera.” The film went on to earn more than 513 million dollars and revolutionized the film industry forever.

George Lucas on the left and Mark Hamill on the right

George Lucas (left) and Mark Hamill

The first technical problem that Lucas and Kurtz encountered during the production of Star Wars was related to animation. In other words, they had to find the most effective and cost-efficient way to turn their vision into reality. They had to create gigantic robots, spaceships and tunnels, and all of that had to be set in outer space. The team solved this problem with the motion control system called Dykstraflex.

The second technical problem that Lucas and Kurtz faced was the go-motion. What they were trying to do was combine still frames into animated sequences; therefore, they started shooting puppets thousands of times in different positions to form the film scenes they needed.

At this point, Lucas began to found several spin-offs to satisfy his need for go-motion, a variation of stop motion animation which incorporates motion blur into each frame. Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic with the intention of providing go-motion technology to modern films. In the following years, Lucas launched LucasArts Pixar Animation Studios with which he produced its first animated movie: Toy Story.

Another problem that George Lucas encountered during the production of Star Wars, was how to give an adequate sound to the 3D scenes. In other words, Lucas had to find a way to record specific sounds for the 3D effects that he came up with. To do this, Lucas launched a fourth spin-off: THX company, which is known for its audio logo, the first one ever created. Lucas’ last spin-off was the sound design firm Skywalker Sound.

Star Wars was the first movie that made part of its revenue through merchandising. Kenner was the first toy company that partnered up with George Lucas to produce Star Wars collectible characters. However, since the characters started to be defined as the films developed, Kenner initially produced just a few collectible characters. Only when Star Wars became famous among both kids and adults, did Kenner finally launch more toys. Star Wars’ second manufacturer of toys and partner was Hasbro.

In October 2012 Lucas decided to sell his company LucasArts to Disney for 4.8 billion dollars. Six years later, Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise as well.

Professor Maiolini concluded his lecture by explaining what entrepreneurs and managers can learn from Star Wars. The first thing to keep in mind is to believe in oneself and to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. Another important thing to remember is to change direction if an approach doesn’t seem to work. It is also very important to have a mentor who can provide wisdom and experience. Finally, it’s fundamental to find someone to share risks with. At the very end, the main thing that entrepreneurs and managers should take away from Star Wars, is that they should not overthink because of fear of failure. The key to success is in the following advice by Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”