From New Hollywood to Star Wars
When Star Wars came out in 1977, Hollywood was in the middle of a creative renaissance. The studio-dominated films prior to the mid 1960s had given way to indie and director-driven movies like Easy Rider, The Godfather, and Badlands. The films themselves were less optimistic, dealing with the loss of trust in institutions in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam War era. America’s great cities were crumbling, graffiti-riddled places characterized by high crime and the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots. The postwar America the Baby Boomers had inherited looked very different from the one their parents inherited after World War 2, and their films reflected that difference.
One of the many things George Lucas has said over the years about his Star Wars films is that he wanted to give kids the kinds of movies he’d grown up with, movies filled with classical heroism. Films that were optimistic. He saw the films of his contemporaries as very dark and nihilistic. Star Wars was an intentional departure from that.
But if George Lucas is to be believed (because he has changed his story and contradicted himself many times over the decades), Star Wars was also about money.
After working within the studio system for American Graffiti and Star Wars, he found himself extremely dissatisfied with the experience and wanting to find a different way to make movies. Over time, a grand vision, beyond writing and directing films, began to take shape for the young filmmaker. He envisioned a place, like a college campus but outside the gravity of Hollywood influence, where filmmakers could collaborate and experiment. A place where filmmakers could dream and create free of the restrictions of the Hollywood system.
But he knew he needed money—and lots of it—to realize this dream.
Early on, Lucas envisioned Star Wars as a never ending series of films (films that would be directed and largely the creative vision of other filmmakers) that would be the financial basis for what would eventually become Skywalker Ranch.
Though this dream would morph and change and probably never quite come true for Lucas, the Star Wars films forever changed Hollywood films, and for over a decade following Star Wars the films of the 1980s would be more commercially driven, big studio films—a 180 degree turnaround from the films that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But that wouldn’t be the last time George Lucas changed the direction of Hollywood.
Jurassic Park, ILM, and the Rise of CGI
In the summer of 1993, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestselling science fiction novel Jurassic Park hit theaters. I remember sitting in the theater when the dinosaurs first appear onscreen and thinking two things: These look like real dinosaurs. and This changes everything.
Looking back on the film now, the “Welcome to Jurassic Park” scene works on a meta level where we, the audience, are the wide-eyed characters in the film who are witnessing something that will clearly change the world, and we can hardly believe our eyes. To us, Richard Attenborough might as well have been saying “Welcome to the new millennium.”
George Lucas recognized the shift, and in a Wall Street Journal interview the director-turned-media mogul recalled an effects tests Industrial Light & Magic did for Jurassic Park in 1992: “We did a test for Steven Spielberg, and when we put them up on the screen, I had tears in my eyes. It was like one of those moments in history—like the invention of the lightbulb or the first telephone call. A major gap had been crossed, and things were never going to be the same.”
We did a test for Steven Spielberg, and when we put them up on the screen, I had tears in my eyes.
And he was right. Things never were the same.
Like the realistic model spaceships from Star Wars thirteen years earlier, the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park set a completely new bar for Hollywood tentpole films. There was no going back.
The Mega Blockbuster
Later this year, the first of four Avatar sequels will arrive in theaters. According to Deadline, the estimated total budget for all of the sequels is in excess of $1 billion. Divided four ways, that locates the cost of Avatar: The Way of Water somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million.
I have no doubt it will exceed that.
But the Avatar sequels have a ways to go if they want to even break into the top 10 most expensive films ever made. Depending who you ask, the most expensive film ever produced is either Avengers Endgame (at $400 million) or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (at $379 million). But the budgets for Hollywood popcorn flicks have been well in excess of $100 million going back to the late 90s. At this point, $250 million seems like a given for just about all genre movies, whether you’re talking about superhero movies or the latest classic Disney reboot. If you compare that to Jurassic Park’s relatively modest budget of $63 million in the early 90s, you can see how sharply movie budgets have risen over a very short period time.
The Way of Water, like its predecessor, will largely consist of computer generated imagery. Without Jurassic Park and ILM, there would be no Avatar. There would be no superhero movies—at least not in the way they exist today. And budgets almost certainly would not be the overinflated behemoths they are today if it weren’t for those computer generated velociraptors.
Is Cinema Dead?
Martin Scorsese made waves in the film industry a few years back when he said that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, comparing them to theme parks. He went on to say: “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.
Whether or not movies have gotten better or worse is certainly up for debate, but there’s no denying that the Mega Budget film has come to dominate the industry. With more and more theaters shuttering permanently (especially in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic), anything that’s not a near-guaranteed blockbuster genre film looks like a risky endeavor for both production companies and theater owners. Some movies, like the upcoming Hulu-produced Predator prequel, Prey, don’t even get theatrical releases.
Obviously there are plenty of factors at play here. The aforementioned pandemic put the kibosh on the movie industry in general, but you have to also consider how younger generations of would-be movie-goers consume media these days—and what they consume. As early as 2015, the generation broadly defined as Millennials were spending more time watching videos on YouTube than on traditional television. With the rise of smartphones, tablets, and streaming services, our collective attention has almost certainly shrunk and simultaneously turned to other things. The cultural importance of the movie theatre, it would seem, has almost certainly seen its peak.
But it’s hard not to draw a straight line from where cinema is now to 1993, to Jurassic Park, to ILM, and, eventually, to George Lucas. In a similar way that it did post-Star Wars, Hollywood has undergone a dramatic change after the introduction of computer generated effects. The technology that ILM pioneered has opened the floodgates to near limitless imagination in film, but it has also enabled the rise of the Mega Budget film. It’s removed any barriers or difficulties for filmmakers that—it could be argued—leads to better films. A convenient way to realize visuals—indeed, whole worlds—without much effort on the filmmaker’s part. And, in a lot of ways, it’s become a crutch, a way to dazzle audiences without having to put too much effort into things like character and story. And in my opinion, that’s hurt film.
But now I put the question to you: Did George Lucas ruin cinema twice?
I look forward to reading your comments!