1980s-2000s. A digression: What I can write about my former employer George Lucas and Organized Labor

I worked for Lucasfilm Ltd.  Because of the employee non-disclosure agreement, I was required to sign in order to get the job, I can not write about what work I did.  I do not know George personally. Everything below comes from documented and cited sources.  It is not based on my opinion, or my experience.  George Lucas is NOT a central figure in Runaway Production History.  He is my former employer.  Because of that I was interested in his documented relationship with organized labor issues.  The pleasure of a blog is you can digress.  Here, I digress.

* * *

The most successful independent film maker in history, George Lucas, has never shot a major motion picture in Hollywood.[1]  His contempt forHollywood is legendary, and predates his actual experience of it.  (Lucas’s father, a small-town businessman in Modesto, California, raised his son to believe Hollywood was “Sin City” (Kline 1999:220).)

            Lucas formed his own opinion while in film school at the University of Southern California (USC), and during his early career as a filmmaker. In 1967, Lucas was awarded a USC scholarship to film a documentary about the making of Mackenna’s Gold on location in Kanab, Utah.  What he saw appalled him.  Lucas says, “We had never been around such opulence…zillions of dollars being spent every five minutes on this huge, unwieldy thing.  It was mind-boggling to us because we had been making [student] films for $300, and seeing this incredible waste—that was the worst of Hollywood” (Pollock 1983:70).  Among the things he noted was the union requirement that a teamster had to drive every vehicle, even if someone wanted to use their own car. Also, an entire crew of local technicians being paid full salary sat around while the film was shot by importedHollywood technicians (Baxter 1999:77).  By that time, the average age of aHollywood film crew worker seemed to Lucas to be about fifty-five, and they were not training their replacements.  Lucas’s professors at USC had repeatedly told him and his classmates that it would be impossible to get into theHollywood feature film business after graduation (Pollock, 1983:42, 43). Lucas tried to join the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild after he finished film school and was immediately rejected (Pollock 1983:248). According to one of Lucas’s biographers, Dale Pollock, Lucas came to see the guilds as “barriers to making movies, reinforcingHollywood’s image as an exclusive club” (Pollock 1983:248).

However, film school had also taught Lucas that because he knew how to light, shoot and cut film, he could make movies. Lucas says, “The studio system is dead…It died…when corporations took over and the studio heads suddenly became agents and lawyers and accountants.  The power is with the people now.  The workers have the means of production” (Pollock 1983:246).

            After graduation, Lucas moved 450 miles north of Hollywood to the San Francisco Bay Area with other young filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Murch, John Korty, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz.  Another of Lucas’s biographers, John Baxter, says, they were “people who shared his commitment to Marin County as a place to make movies, or who couldn’t find work in heavily unionized Hollywood” (Baxter 1999:139, Pollock 1983:84).

            As a fledgling director, Lucas then worked with the inefficiencies and vagaries of the film unions and Hollywoodstudios firsthand. While making his first major motion picture, THX 1138, which was shot in the newly finished train tunnels of the Bay Area BART system, Lucas noticed that the professionals he hired did not do a better job than the students he’d worked with in school, “They still put the film in backward and screwed up…Only in the professional industry, you pay for it—enormously” (Pollock 1983:92).

            He was later devastated by the edits to THX 1138 that theHollywood studio executives insisted upon.  Lucas says, “The cuts didn’t make the movie any better; they had absolutely no effect on the movie at all…It was a very personal kind of film and I didn’t think they had the right to come in and just arbitrarily chop it up at their own whim.  I’m not really good with authority figures anyway so I was completely outraged” (Pollock 1983:97).

            Lucas’s second film, American Graffiti, was shot in twenty-eight days in Northern California.  This film, too, was re-edited by the studio.  Lucas says of the edits,

You write [a film], you slave over it, you stay up twenty-eight nights getting cold and sick.  It’s exactly like raising a kid.  You raise a kid for two or three years, you struggle with it, then somebody comes along and says, ‘Well, it’s a very nice kid, but I think we ought to cut off one of its fingers.’  So they take their little axe and chop off one of the fingers.  They say, ‘Don’t worry.  Nobody will notice.  She’ll live, everything will be all right.’  But I mean, it hurts a great deal (Baxter 1999:138). 

The most profitable film in Fox’s history in terms of cost-to-profit ratio, American Graffiti cost $775,000 to make and sold over $117 million in tickets (Salewicz 1998).  This gave George Lucas power to negotiate for the final edit of his next film, Star Wars, as well as the power to trade $500,000 in salary up front for the merchandising rights to the film, a bargain that would later help make him a billionaire.

            Even though Lucas lived in Marin, he shot Star Wars in Britain and Tunisia.  Aside from his antipathy for Hollywood, several other issues were named as factors, including the cost (the devalued pound made shooting in Britain advantageous), the scenery in Tunisia, and the number of available sound stages in Britain (they needed forty-five sets on eleven sound stages, and that wasn’t available in Hollywood) (Baxter 1999:182, Kline 1999:49). 

However, Lucas also had difficulties with organized labor there.  Supported by Harold Wilson’s Labor government, the British film unions were strong, and crews worked an eight-hour day with two mandatory tea breaks (Baxter 1999:183, 208). They stopped work promptly at5:30 PM.  When Lucas proposed that the crew stay an extra two hours every day, this proposal was soundly defeated by a union ballot (Salewicz 1998:58). Lucas saw himself falling behind schedule because of the union’s inflexibility (Pollock 1983:162).   The crew was “rough” on Lucas (Baxter 1999:204).  Accustomed to the “loud and expansive Hollywood directors who usually worked in England” the crew did not know what to make of this short, slight, kid who wore jeans and old sneakers on the set.  His natural reserve also worked against him (Pollock 1983:161).

            Many of the special effects for the Star Wars films were made in California.  Initially, in 1975, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was located in Van Nuys, a Los Angeles suburb, because of the proximity to Hollywood’s film labs (Pollock 1983:154,170).  There are two versions of the story about why ILM was not a union shop.  The first is that Lucas tried to get the ILM crew into the film local, but according to Pollock, “union leaders had no use for ILM’s resident weirdos” which saved Lucas in overtime and benefits (1983:172).  Another story is that Lucas’s employees at ILM were sworn to secrecy about their non-union status.  However, a local projectionist, the one IATSE[2] member in town, blew the whistle.  John Baxter reports that Lucas and his producer Gary Kurtz viewed local IATSE members as, “a gang of hobbyists and crazies” (1999:177).  Either way, the non-union status worked for Lucas because he wanted a malleable and compliant group.  Lucas says, “I wanted to be able to say, ‘It must look like this, not that.’  I don’t want to be handed an effect at the end of five months and be told, ‘Here’s your special effect, sir.’ I want to be able to have more say about what’s going on” (Salewicz 1998:62, Kline 1999:50).

            After Star Wars became the top-grossing film of all time (Salewicz 1998:72), and Lucas released the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he started to have trouble with the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild (which had finally accepted him for membership).  Lucas says, “The Hollywood unions have been taken over by the same lawyers and accountants who took over the studios” (Baxter 1999:324).

         The Directors Guild fined Lucas $250,000 because he put Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner’s credit at end of the film rather then the beginning, as the Guild contract mandates.  Lucas argued that this convention would have disrupted the opening “text crawl” of the film, (a recycled “innovation” from old-time movies, the “crawl” thrusts the viewer right in the middle of the comic-book-style action).  Claiming that Lucas had given himself a credit by having put the Lucasfilm logo at the beginning of the film, the DGA threatened to have the film removed from the cinemas (if the dispute went to arbitration). Lucas, to no avail, pointed out that his name is not George Lucasfilm, just as William Fox’s name was not Twentieth Century-Fox (Kline 1999 139).  Eventually they settled out of court for $25,000 and Lucas resigned from the Guild, noting that none of those funds went to Kershner, instead they went into the “business agents’ pockets” (Salewicz 1998:86, Kline 1999:140).

            Even Kershner believed Lucas was wronged.  He said, “The DGA works for me…I don’t work for the DGA.  I think the Guild hurts itself by doing this sort of thing.  As a result, Lucas is now going to get a British director for his next film, and Hollywood is losing work because of the way the DGA acted” (Baxter 1999:325).  Lucas says, “I feel the unions tried to extort money from me for their own coffers. They used a thin technicality, but the only reason they were doing it was to get money” (Pollock 1983:249).

            Lucas’s Writers Guild dispute had to do with crediting the contributions of writer Philip Kaufman to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  After Lucas negotiated with Kaufman so he would get part of a point for his work on the character of Indiana Jones and the story itself, Kaufman later requested screen credit.  The Writers Guild took Kaufman’s side.  This infuriated Lucas who resigned his membership in the guild.  As a result of these two disputes, by the early 1980s, Lucas could no longer write or direct films in theUnited States. Also by that time, as Lucas pointed out, he was so rich he did not need to work anymore (Baxter 1999:325).

            Lucas also resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which presents the annual Oscar awards).  Only years later, in 1992, when the Academy awarded him its Irving Thalberg Award (a special Oscar), did he rejoin the Academy.  In 1997 he quietly rejoined the Directors Guild (Baxter 1999:389,394).

            In the late 1990s, Lucas traveled to Australiato investigate the possibility of making the Star Wars prequels there. Australia had many advantages, including a pleasant climate, soft currency and low-cost labor.  Those prequels were budgeted at $120 million each.  When asked why he went toAustralia, Lucas first said, “In the end it is the talent that is here.  I go where the talent is.”  He was then asked what talent was in Australia that he couldn’t find in California, and he changed his tune, “We are very keen to help bring in [to Australia] and update some of the more esoteric crafts that are necessary for large stage productions and to expand that part of the industry” (Baxter 1999:399).  Lucas has said,

I’ve been saying for a long time that Hollywood is dead.  That doesn’t mean the film industry is dead.  But for one region to dominate is dead …  The filmmaker hasn’t figured out that he doesn’t need the agents and the studio executives.  What is Hollywood? An antiquated, out-of-date distribution apparatus, a monopoly, a system designed to exploit the filmmaker.  The system is collapsing because of new technologies.  The movie companies are structured inefficiently.  In good times, it doesn’t show.  But they won’t be able to survive the bad times (Kline 1999:144). 

Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re George Lucas. 

[1]  What I learned about this while working at Lucasfilm is proprietary information; so, I have to rely on the public record to continue my story.

[2] The InternationalAlliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artist and Allied Crafts of theUnited States andCanada, AFL-CIO, CLC (IATSE) union includes both a wide varietyHollywood film workers (from cameramen to publicists to make-up artists to projectionists) and theatrical stage labor.

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