Sunday, May 16, 1999

Lucas: Fans drove hype

Producer downplays impact, marketing of 'Phantom Menace'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

George Lucas with R2D2 and Jake Lloyd.
| ZOOM |
        NEW YORK — George Lucas looks remarkably relaxed for a filmmaker who is presiding over what one of his actors called “a strange hurricane.”

        Dressed in a sport coat and black jeans, he strolls to the front of a room crowded with journalists who want him to explain the phenomenon that has consumed most of his adult life.

        The three original Star Wars movies made Mr. Lucas rich and famous, and spawned an army of fans who have tracked the approach of the newest installment — The Phantom Menace, opening Wednesday — with sometimes delirious ardor.

        “I'm a little surprised at the imbalance of attention the film has got,” Mr. Lucas tells the assembled press. “We have actually tried very hard not to let it be overhyped.”

        It was the fans, he insists, who drove the explosion of toys, magazines and Web sites, some filled with discussions of almost theological intensity.

        He pooh-poohs the suggestion that the Star Wars universe has in fact become a religion.

        “There are certainly not enough answers in Star Wars to constitute a religion. It's designed to make people think about the larger entities and mysteries of life,” he says.

        “People have sort of drifted away and tried to make (the movies) more than they are. This is a Saturday afternoon serial for children. ...People forget what the movies actually are.”

Applauds the fans
        He applauds the fans who have used the Internet to feed their enthusiasm, including the organizers of long-term waiting lines — some began in early April — where hard-core fans in several cities are camped out to buy tickets. In most places, the lines have been turned into fund-raising events for children's charities.

        In fact, he says, it is for the fans' sake that he has imposed conditions on theater owners who will show the movie. “What we're saying is I don't want 15 or 20 minutes of commercials shown before the film. I want the film to be in a good theater, where the projection is good and the sound is good....I'm trying to get a good presentation for the audience.”

        He's also counting on the audience — not critics — to make the new movie a hit.

Star Wars
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        When the original Star Wars opened in 1977, he recalls, critics were not impressed. “Most of them trashed it in one way or another.”

        Though he insists “This is not a contest,” he is quick to dismiss predictions that The Phantom Menace will set a new record at the box office.

        “The chances of this film beating the original ($460 million) I'd say are slim to none. I don't even think it will beat E.T. ($400 million).” His prediction: The movie will end up somewhere in the top 10 money makers.

        While The Phantom Menace maintains the Star Wars tradition of gore-free action and violence directed mostly against robots, Mr. Lucas has not escaped the media soul-searching inspired by the Columbine High School shootings.

        His general conclusion, he says, is that context is crucial. “We live in a violent world, and to deny that would be almost as dangerous as glorifying it and making it an obsession,” he says. “Hurting people for fun, for enjoyment, is the central issue.

        “You have to fight for freedom; you have to sometimes fight for your rights; you have to fight for self-defense. ... But at the same time to torture other people, to make them feel bad, to belittle them, ... it ultimately is the same kind of mean-spiritedness that is, I think, born out of cynicism.”

        With The Phantom Menace, the filmmaker made a fantasy come to life without the frustrations that dogged him during the original series. “I had an imagination that created a kind of world that I could never get on film. It was just technically impossible.” Given the state of moviemaking technology today, “This is the one time I was able to sit down and basically let my imagination run wild.”

        He also had the financial resources to try anything he wanted, thanks partly to an apparently bottomless demand for Star Wars toys, games and other merchandise.

Defends merchandising
        He defends the merchandising operation as a tool that has allowed him to steer clear of studio control.

        “I'm an independent filmmaker, and I've had to make sure I exploited everything I possibly can on a movie,” he says. “It's like being an Indian; when you kill a buffalo, you have to use everything....”

        He has said he will complete two more movies, but will not make the third trilogy that he originally envisioned for the series. He has, he says, other movies to make and — now in his 50s — only so many years to make them.

        “Star Wars is a very big, consuming thing. It's like a little tar baby, and I stuck my fist in 23 years ago. I'm a little surprised at how it sort of dominated my life. I don't regret it. It's been fairly rewarding.”

        Now, he's ready to relax a little. On Wednesday, when thousands will be watching his film, he says, “I'm gonna be off on a beach in the South Pacific someplace. Far away, with no phone, and I'm gonna be very happy.”

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