Star Wars is one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time. What started as a little science fiction movie, George Lucas’ gamble to make something new and innovative paid off big time.
He wasn’t the only person who took a chance on Star Wars. Legendary director Steven Spielberg was supposedly paid millions from the first movie in the franchise, all thanks to a little bet.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Were Best Buds
It’s no secret that Lucas and Spielberg are great friends and often collaborators on projects. The partnership started at a film festival screening of Lucas’ short film, THX 1138. The story goes that they weren’t friends right away. Far Out Magazine cites Spielberg as being jealous of Lucas’ work, finding it brilliant and far better than his own films. Spielberg said: “I was eighteen years old and had directed fifteen short films by that time, and this little movie was better than all of my movies combined.”
Thanks to some influence from Francis Ford Coppola setting up another screening, Lucas wanted to get to know Spielberg after seeing the latter’s movie, Duel. A small rivalry began between the two, but over time, it grew into a relationship of respect and a drive to push the other. Far Out even notes that Spielberg introduced George Lucas to John Williams, the now iconic Star Wars composer who himself went on to inspire a generation of musicians.
Spielberg Believed in Star Wars When No One Else Did
Filming the first Star Wars wasn’t without its troubles. No studios truly wanted a movie based on Flash Gordon serials as the science fiction genre had fallen off in the '70s. The shoot was constantly over-budget and delayed. Burnt out and frustrated, George Lucas needed a boost from his friend.
At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas told panel host Stephen Colbert how no one seemed to believe in Star Wars except for Spielberg. Lucas reminisced:
“I showed it to all of my friends early on, but it was mostly filled with stock footage of old war movies and all kinds of stuff. They saw it and said, ‘Poor George. What were you thinking?’ Steven [Spielberg] had jumped up, and said, ‘This is going to be the biggest movie of all time.’ Everybody in the room looked up at Steven and said, ‘Poor Steven.’”
Perhaps Spielberg’s faith in his friend prompted him to make a bet that would earn him millions.
Because of the delays and troubles with Star Wars’ filming, George Lucas visited his friend working on his film in Mobile, Alabama. Spielberg welcomed him onto the Close Encounters of the Third Kind set to let his friend recharge. In an interview with Turner Classic Movies, Steven Spielberg shared the exchange that would make him millions.
“George came back from Star Wars a nervous wreck,” Spielberg said. “He didn’t feel Star Wars came up to the vision he initially had. He felt he had just made this little kids’ movie.”
Lucas was so impressed with Spielberg’s massive movie set compared to his own shoot. Spielberg continued: “[George] said, ‘Oh my God, your movie is going to be so much more successful than ‘Star Wars’! This is gonna be the biggest hit of all time. I can’t believe this set. I can’t believe what you’re getting, and oh my goodness.’” It was here that Lucas decided to make a bet with his friend.
The Star Wars Bet Steven Spielberg Wouldn't Regret
“All right, I’ll tell you what,” Lucas told Spielberg. “I’ll trade some points with you. Do you want to trade some points? I’ll give you 2.5% of Star Wars if you give me 2.5% of Close Encounters.” ‘Points’ were a percentage of the movie’s profits made. Spielberg laughed in the interview, proclaiming he said loudly, “Sure! I’ll gamble with that!”
With a giddy glee, Spielberg snickered, “And I think I came out on top of that bet,” before belting a hearty laugh. “Both of our movies were wildly profitable. Close Encounters made so much money. [It] rescued Columbia from bankruptcy, and it was the most money I had ever made on a movie before.”
Still, it didn’t come close to the juggernaut that Star Wars would become. Not that George Lucas had faith in his movie’s success. He wouldn’t realize that until he was again with his friend Spielberg.
The famous story goes that Lucas didn’t even want to see the reviews for the film. George and Steven went to Hawaii for a few days to escape as the movie was about to be released on May 25, 1977. Lucas told Stephen Colbert: “I don’t read the reviews. I just go, lay on a beach. Steven [Spielberg] was there.”
This trip to Hawaii made Lucas realize he had something big, and Spielberg was about to win the bet. The then-president of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., who Lucas referred to as ‘Laddie,’ had been among the few people who believed in Star Wars. Laddie phoned Lucas in Hawaii, which the latter describes, “I got a call from Laddie after the first weekend. It was really like in the middle of the week,” recalled Lucas. “He called and said, ‘George, turn on the news.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Turn on CBS. Turn on the news. Walter Cronkite.’ You gotta see it.’ So I said, ‘What is it now?’ I turned on the news, and they had this huge story on the sensation of Star Wars and lines around the block. Everybody was going berserk about it. That was the first time I understood that it was a big hit.”
Spielberg then clearly won the bet. Business Insider ran the numbers. Star Wars made $460 million in the U.S. alone. With that 2.5% points wager, Spielberg came out with about $40 million. Spielberg laughed in the Turner Classic Movies interview, “I was the happy beneficiary of a couple of net points of that movie which I am still seeing money on today!”
Star Wars would go on to be one of the most profitable franchises. In 2021, The Hill reported it was the 5th highest-grossing media franchise of all time, only beaten out by Pokemon, Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh, and Mickey Mouse.
Spielberg saw greatness in Lucas’s work from the beginning. Not too shabby of a payout for something as simple as believing in his friend.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.