Upon graduating from the University of Southern California in 1967, Lucas co-founded American Zoetrope with fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Lucas wrote and directed THX 1138 (1971), based on his earlier student short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which was a critical success but a financial failure. His next work as a writer-director was the film, American Graffiti (1973), inspired by his teen years in early 1960s Modesto, California, and produced through the newly founded Lucasfilm. The film was critically and commercially successful, and received five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.
Five of Lucas's seven features are among the 100 highest-grossing movies at the North American box office, adjusted for ticket-price inflation.
Lucas is one of the American film industry's most financially successful filmmakers, and has been personally nominated for four Academy Awards. Lucas is considered a significant figure in the New Hollywood era.
Lucas was born and raised in Modesto, California, the son of Dorothy Ellinore Lucas (née Bomberger) and George Walton Lucas, Sr., who owned a stationery store. He is of German, Swiss-German, English, Scottish, and distant Dutch and French descent. Growing up, Lucas had a passion for cars and motor racing, which later inspired his films 1:42.08 and American Graffiti. Long before Lucas became obsessed with filmmaking, he yearned to be a race-car driver, and he spent most of his high school years racing on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and hanging out at garages. On June 12, 1962, at age eighteen, while driving his souped-up Autobianchi Bianchina, another driver broadsided him, flipping over his car, nearly killing him, causing him to lose interest in racing as a career. He attended Modesto Junior College, where he studied anthropology, sociology, and literature, amongst other subjects. He also began shooting with an 8 mm camera, including filming car races.
At this time, Lucas and his friend John Plummer became interested in Canyon Cinema: screenings of underground, avant-garde 16 mm filmmakers like Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, and Bruce Conner. Lucas and Plummer also saw classic European films of the time, including Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and Federico Fellini's 8½. "That's when George really started exploring," Plummer said. Through his interest in autocross racing, Lucas met renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler, another race enthusiast. Wexler, later to work with Lucas on several occasions, was impressed by Lucas' talent. "George had a very good eye, and he thought visually," he recalled.
Lucas then transferred to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. USC was one of the earliest universities to have a school devoted to motion picture film. During the years at USC, Lucas shared a dorm room with Randal Kleiser. Along with classmates such as Walter Murch, Hal Barwood, and John Milius, they became a clique of film students known as The Dirty Dozen. He also became good friends with fellow acclaimed student filmmaker and future Indiana Jones collaborator, Steven Spielberg. Lucas was deeply influenced by the Filmic Expression course taught at the school by filmmaker Lester Novros which concentrated on the non-narrative elements of Film Form like color, light, movement, space, and time. Another inspiration was the Serbian montagist (and dean of the USC Film Department) Slavko Vorkapić, a film theoretician who made stunning montage sequences for Hollywood studio features at MGM, RKO, and Paramount. Vorkapich taught the autonomous nature of the cinematic art form, emphasizing the unique dynamic quality of movement and kinetic energy inherent in motion pictures.
Lucas saw many inspiring films in class, particularly the visual films coming out of the National Film Board of Canada like Arthur Lipsett's 21-87, the French-Canadian cameraman Jean-Claude Labrecque's cinéma vérité 60 Cycles, the work of Norman McLaren, and the documentaries of Claude Jutra. Lucas fell madly in love with pure cinema and quickly became prolific at making 16 mm nonstory noncharacter visual tone poems and cinéma vérité with such titles as Look at Life, Herbie, 1:42.08, The Emperor, Anyone Lived in a Pretty (how) Town, Filmmaker, and 6-18-67. He was passionate and interested in camerawork and editing, defining himself as a filmmaker as opposed to being a director, and he loved making abstract visual films that created emotions purely through cinema.
After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in film in 1967, he tried joining the United States Air Force as an officer, but he was immediately turned down because of his numerous speeding tickets. He was later drafted by the Army for military service in Vietnam, but he was exempted from service after medical tests showed he had diabetes, the disease that killed his paternal grandfather.
In 1967, Lucas re-enrolled as a USC graduate student in film production. Working as a teaching instructor for a class of U.S. Navy students who were being taught documentary cinematography, Lucas directed the short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which won first prize at the 1967–68 National Student film festival, and was later adapted into his first full-length feature film, THX 1138. Lucas was awarded a student scholarship by Warner Bros. to observe and work on the making of a film of his choosing. The film he chose was Finian's Rainbow (1968) which was being directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who was revered among film school students of the time as a cinema graduate who had "made it" in Hollywood. In 1969, Lucas was one of the camera operators on the classic Rolling Stones concert film Gimme Shelter.
In 1969, Lucas co-founded the studio American Zoetrope with Coppola—whom he met during his internship at Warner Bros.—hoping to create a liberating environment for filmmakers to direct outside the perceived oppressive control of the Hollywood studio system. His first full-length feature film produced by the studio, THX 1138, was not a success. Lucas then created his own company, Lucasfilm, Ltd., and directed the successful American Graffiti (1973).
Lucas then set his sights on adapting Flash Gordon, an adventure serial from his childhood that he fondly remembered. When he was unable to obtain the rights, he set out to write an original space adventure that would eventually become Star Wars. Despite his success with his previous film, all but one studio turned Star Wars down. It was only because Alan Ladd, Jr., at 20th Century Fox liked American Graffiti that he forced through a production and distribution deal for the film, which ended up restoring Fox to financial stability after a number of flops. Star Wars was significantly influenced by samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, spaghetti westerns, as well as classic swords & sorcery fantasy stories.
Star Wars quickly became the highest-grossing film of all-time, displaced five years later by Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. After the success of American Graffiti and prior to the beginning of filming on Star Wars, Lucas was encouraged to renegotiate for a higher fee for writing and directing Star Wars than the $150,000 agreed. He declined to do so, instead negotiating for advantage in some of the as-yet-unspecified parts of his contract with Fox, in particular ownership of licensing and merchandising rights (for novelizations, T-shirts, toys, etc.) and contractual arrangements for sequels. The studio was unconcerned to relinquish these rights, as its last major attempt in the field, with the film Doctor Dolittle (1967), had proved a discouraging failure. Lucas exploited merchandising rights wisely, and Lucasfilm has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from licensed games, toys, and collectibles created for the franchise.
Following the release of the first Star Wars film, Lucas worked extensively as a writer and producer, including on the many Star Wars spinoffs made for film, television, and other media. Lucas acted as executive producer for the next two Star Wars films, commissioning Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back, and Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi, while receiving a story credit on the former and sharing a screenwriting credit with Lawrence Kasdan on the latter. He also acted as executive producer and story writer on all four of the Indiana Jones films, which his colleague and good friend Steven Spielberg directed.
Other successful projects where Lucas acted as a producer or writer in this period include Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980), Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981), Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986), Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1986), Don Bluth's The Land Before Time (1988), and the Indiana Jones television spinoff The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992–96). There were unsuccessful projects, however, including More American Graffiti (1979), Willard Huyck's Howard the Duck (1986), which was the biggest flop of Lucas's career, Ron Howard's Willow (1988), Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), and Mel Smith's Radioland Murders (1994).
The animation studio Pixar was founded in 1979 as the Graphics Group, one third of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm. Pixar's early computer graphics research resulted in groundbreaking effects in films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Young Sherlock Holmes, and the group was purchased in 1986 by Steve Jobs shortly after he left Apple Computer. Jobs paid Lucas US$5 million and put US$5 million as capital into the company. The sale reflected Lucas' desire to stop the cash flow losses from his 7-year research projects associated with new entertainment technology tools, as well as his company's new focus on creating entertainment products rather than tools. A contributing factor was cash-flow difficulties following Lucas' 1983 divorce concurrent with the sudden dropoff in revenues from Star Wars licenses following the release of Return of the Jedi.
The sound-equipped system THX Ltd. was founded by Lucas and Tomlinson Holman. The company was formerly owned by Lucasfilm, and contains equipment for stereo, digital, and theatrical sound for films, and music. Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light & Magic, are the sound and visual effects subdivisions of Lucasfilm, while Lucasfilm Games, later renamed LucasArts, produces products for the gaming industry.
After losing much of his fortune in a divorce settlement in 1987, Lucas had no desire to return to Star Wars, and had unofficially canceled his sequel trilogy by the time of Return of the Jedi. Nevertheless, the prequels, which were still only a series of basic ideas partially pulled from his original drafts of "The Star Wars", continued to tantalize him with technical possibilities that would make it worthwhile to revisit his older material. When Star Wars became popular once again, in the wake of Dark Horse's comic book line and Timothy Zahn's trilogy of novels, Lucas realized that there was still a large audience. His children were older, and with the explosion of CGI technology he was now considering returning to directing.
By 1993, it was announced, in Variety among other sources, that Lucas would be making the prequels. He began penning more to the story, indicating that the series would be a tragic one, examining Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side. Lucas also began to change the prequels status relative to the originals; at first they were supposed to be a "filling-in" of history tangential to the originals, but now he saw that they could form the beginning of one long story that started with Anakin's childhood and ended with his death. This was the final step towards turning the film series into a "Saga". In 1994, Lucas began work on the screenplay of the first prequel, tentatively titled Episode I: The Beginning.
In 1997, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, Lucas returned to the original trilogy and made numerous modifications using newly available digital technology, releasing them in theaters as the Star Wars Special Edition. For DVD releases in 2004 and Blu-ray releases in 2011, the trilogy received further revisions to make them congruent with the prequel trilogy. Besides the additions to the Star Wars franchise, Lucas released a Director's Cut of THX 1138 in 2004, with the film re-cut and containing a number of CGI revisions.
The first Star Wars prequel was finished and released in 1999 as Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which would be the first film Lucas had directed in over two decades. Following the release of the first prequel, Lucas announced that he would also be directing the next two, and began working on Episode II. The first draft of Episode II was completed just weeks before principal photography, and Lucas hired Jonathan Hales, a writer from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, to polish it. It was completed and released in 2002 as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The final prequel, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, began production in 2002 and was released in 2005. Numerous fans and critics considered the prequels inferior to the original trilogy, though they were box office successes nonetheless. From 2003 to 2005, Lucas also served as an executive producer on Star Wars: Clone Wars, an animated microseries on Cartoon Network created by Genndy Tartakovsky, that bridged the events between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Lucas collaborated with Jeff Nathanson as a writer of the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg. Like the Star Wars prequels, reception was mixed, with numerous fans and critics once again considering it inferior to its predecessors. From 2008 to 2014, Lucas also served as the executive producer for a second Star Wars animated series on Cartoon Network, Star Wars: The Clone Wars which premiered with a feature film of the same name before airing its first episode. The supervising director for this series was Dave Filoni, who was chosen by Lucas and closely collaborated with him on its development. Like the previous series it bridged the events between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The animated series also featured the last Star Wars stories on which Lucas was majorly involved.
In 2012, Lucas served as the story-writer and executive producer for Red Tails, a war film based on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. He also took over direction of reshoots while director Anthony Hemingway worked on other projects.
In January 2012, Lucas announced his retirement from producing large blockbuster films and instead re-focusing his career on smaller, independently budgeted features.
In June 2012, it was announced that producer Kathleen Kennedy, a long-term collaborator with Steven Spielberg and a producer of the Indiana Jones films, had been appointed as co-chair of Lucasfilm Ltd. It was reported that Kennedy would work alongside Lucas, who would remain chief executive and serve as co-chairman for at least one year, after which she would succeed him as the company's sole leader. With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, Lucas is currently Disney's second largest single shareholder after the estate of Steve Jobs.
Since 2014, Lucas is working as a creative consultant on the Star Wars sequel trilogy, including work in the first movie, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. As creative consultant on the film, Lucas' involvement included attending early story meetings; according to Lucas, "I mostly say, 'You can't do this. You can do that.' You know, 'The cars don't have wheels. They fly with antigravity.' There's a million little pieces... I know all that stuff." Lucas' son Jett told The Guardian that his father was "very torn" about having sold the rights to the franchise, despite having hand-picked Abrams to direct, and that his father was "there to guide" but that "he wants to let it go and become its new generation." Among the materials turned over to the production team were rough story treatments Lucas developed when he considered creating episodes VII–IX himself years earlier; in January 2015, Lucas stated that Disney had discarded his story ideas.
The Force Awakens directed by J. J. Abrams, was released on December 18, 2015. Kathleen Kennedy executive produced, and will do so for all future Star Wars films. The new sequel trilogy is being jointly produced by Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company, which had acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. During an interview with talk show host and journalist Charlie Rose that aired on December 24, 2015, Lucas likened his decision to sell Lucasfilm to Disney to a "divorce" and outlined the creative differences between him and the producers of The Force Awakens. Lucas described the previous six Star Wars films as his "children" and defended his vision for them, while criticizing The Force Awakens for having a "retro feel", saying: “I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new”. Lucas also drew some criticism and subsequently apologized for his remark likening Disney to "white slavers". It has been reported Lucas liked Rogue One: a Star Wars Story more than The Force Awakens. Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards and told the story of the rebels who stole the plans for the original Death Star.
In 2015, Lucas wrote the CGI film Strange Magic, his first musical. The film was produced at Skywalker Ranch. Gary Rydstrom directed the movie. At the same time the sequel trilogy was announced a fifth installment of the Indiana Jones series also entered pre-development phase with Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg set to return, for a release in 2019 while originally Lucas did not specify whether the selling of Lucasfilm would affect his involvement with such film. In October 2016, Lucas announced his decision to not be involved in the story of the film, but would remain an executive producer.
Lucas has pledged to give half of his fortune to charity as part of an effort called The Giving Pledge led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to persuade America's richest individuals to donate their financial wealth to charities.
In 1991, The George Lucas Educational Foundation was founded as a nonprofit operating foundation to celebrate and encourage innovation in schools. The Foundation's content is available under the brand Edutopia, in an award-winning web site, social media and via documentary films. Lucas, through his foundation, was one of the leading proponents of the E-rate program in the universal service fund, which was enacted as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. On June 24, 2008, Lucas testified before the United States House of Representatives subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet as the head of his Foundation to advocate for a free wireless broadband educational network.
In 2012, Lucas sold Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company for a reported sum of $4.05 billion. It was widely reported at the time that Lucas intends to give the majority of the proceeds from the sale to charity. A spokesperson for Lucasfilm said, "George Lucas has expressed his intention, in the event the deal closes, to donate the majority of the proceeds to his philanthropic endeavors." Lucas also spoke on the matter: "For 41 years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy."
By June 2013, Lucas was considering establishing a museum, the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, to be built on Crissy Field near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which would display his collection of illustrations and pop art, with an estimated value of more than $1 billion. Lucas offered to pay the estimated $300 million cost of constructing the museum, and would endow it with $400 million when it opened, eventually adding an additional $400 million to its endowment. After being unable to reach an agreement with The Presidio Trust, Lucas turned to Chicago. A potential lakefront site on Museum Campus in Chicago was proposed in May 2014. By June 2014, Chicago had been selected, pending approval of the Chicago Plan Commission, which was granted. The museum project was renamed the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. On June 24, 2016, Lucas announced that he was abandoning his plans to locate the museum in Chicago, due to a lawsuit by a local preservation group, Friends of the Parks, and would instead build the museum in California. On January 17, 2017, Lucas announced that the museum will be constructed in Exposition Park, Los Angeles California.
In 2005, Lucas gave US$1 million to help build the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to commemorate American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
On September 19, 2006, USC announced that Lucas had donated $175–180 million to his alma mater to expand the film school. It is the largest single donation to USC and the largest gift to a film school anywhere. Previous donations led to the already existing George Lucas Instructional Building and Marcia Lucas Post-Production building.
In 2013, Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson donated $25 million to the Chicago-based not-for-profit After School Matters, of which Hobson is the chair.
On April 15, 2016, it was reported that Lucas had donated between $501,000 and $1 million through the Lucas Family Foundation to the Obama Foundation, which is charged with overseeing the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago's South Side.
In 1969, Lucas married film editor Marcia Lou Griffin, who went on to win an Academy Award for her editing work on the original Star Wars film. They adopted a daughter, Amanda Lucas, in 1981, and divorced in 1983. Lucas subsequently adopted two more children as a single parent: daughter Katie Lucas, born in 1988, and son Jett Lucas, born in 1993. His three eldest children all appeared in the three Star Wars prequels, as did Lucas himself. Following his divorce, Lucas was in a relationship with singer Linda Ronstadt in the 1980s.
Lucas began dating Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and chair of DreamWorks Animation, in 2006. Lucas and Hobson announced their engagement in January 2013, and married on June 22, 2013, at Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. They have one daughter together, Everest Hobson Lucas, who was born via gestational carrier on August 12, 2013.
Lucas was born and raised in a Methodist family. The religious and mythical themes in Star Wars were inspired by Lucas's interest in the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, and he would eventually come to identify strongly with the Eastern religious philosophies he studied and incorporated into his films, which were a major inspiration for "the Force". Lucas has come to state that his religion is "Buddhist Methodist". He resides in Marin County.
Lucas is a major collector of the American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell. A collection of 57 Rockwell paintings and drawings owned by Lucas and fellow Rockwell collector and film director Steven Spielberg were displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from July 2, 2010 to January 2, 2011 in an exhibition titled Telling Stories.
Lucas has said that he is a fan of Seth MacFarlane's hit TV show Family Guy. MacFarlane has said that Lucasfilm was extremely helpful when the Family Guy crew wanted to parody their works.
The American Film Institute awarded Lucas its Life Achievement Award on June 9, 2005. This was shortly after the release of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, about which he joked stating that, since he views the entire Star Wars series as one film, he could actually receive the award now that he had finally "gone back and finished the movie."
Lucas was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Directing and Writing for American Graffiti and Star Wars. He received the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1991. He appeared at the 79th Academy Awards ceremony in 2007 with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola to present the Best Director award to their friend Martin Scorsese. During the speech, Spielberg and Coppola talked about the joy of winning an Oscar, making fun of Lucas, who has not won a competitive Oscar.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted Lucas in 2006, its second "Film, Television, and Media" contributor, after Spielberg. The Discovery Channel named him one of the 100 "Greatest Americans" in September 2008. Lucas served as Grand Marshal for the Tournament of Roses Parade and made the ceremonial coin toss at the Rose Bowl, New Year's Day 2007. In 2009, he was one of 13 California Hall of Fame inductees in The California Museum's yearlong exhibit.
In July 2013, Lucas was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama for his contributions to American cinema.
In October 2014, Lucas received Honorary Membership of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.
In August 2015, Lucas was inducted as a Disney Legend, and on 6 December 2015, he was an honoree at the Kennedy Center Honors.