Movie Legends Revealed: Spielberg Won Cut of <i>Star Wars</i> Profits in Bet?

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Steven Spielberg won a percentage of the profits of the original Star Wars film in a bet.

One of the most difficult periods for a filmmaker is the one between a project’s completion and release. Once the film comes out, whether it is a hit or not, the creator at least knows where he or she stands. Before it comes out, though, their mind just races with the possibilities. You would be surprised at the massive hits whose directors were freaking out after filming was complete about all the things that had gone wrong and how no one was going to go watch the movie they had just spent months of their lives making. It was just this sort of reaction by director George Lucas in 1976 that led to one of the craziest bets in film history.

As many Star Wars fans know, filming of the original Star Wars was about as close to a disaster as you can get. The movie was initially scheduled for a Christmas 1976 release, but production delays pushed it all the way to summer 1977. The feature was about 40 percent over budget, and there was little buzz ahead of its release, as science fiction films weren’t exactly known at the time for being box-office successes. Moreover, due to the delays, the editing and special effects were also pushed back, and because some of those effects were unlike any seen in films before, it was very risky to be working under such a cramped deadline. At an advance screening in February 1977, just three months before release, many of the film's special effects (including the climactic battle at the Death Star between the Rebel starships and the Imperial TIE Fighters) had not been finished. So Lucas was a bit of a wreck. Once completed, 20th Century Fox actually was quite impressed with the picture, but Lucas was still wary. When one studio executive remarked, "You're drunk and crazy -- this picture's going to be the biggest hit ever made," Lucas retorted, "Oh, no. It won't make more than 15 million."

So, keeping Lucas' perspective in mind, imagine what happened when he visited his good friend Steven Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1976 after filming wrapped on Star Wars. Spielberg, remember, was just coming off directing Jaws, which was at the time one of the biggest moneymakers in movie history. So in Spielberg, Lucas saw someone who really had this "making a hit film" thing down. In the 2007 Turner Classic Movies documentary Spielberg on Spielberg, the director recalled Lucas' visit:

George came back from Star Wars a nervous wreck. He didn't feel Star Wars came up to the vision he initially had. He felt he had just made this little kids' movie. He came to Mobile, Alabama where I was shooting Close Encounters on this humongous set and hung out with me for a couple of days. He 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.'

This is where the bet came in. Spielberg continues:

He said, 'You want to trade some points? I'll give you two and a half per cent of Star Wars if you give me two and a half per cent of Close Encounters.' "I said, 'Sure, I'll gamble with that, great.'

So the "bet" is that each filmmaker would have 2.5 percent of the other guy's film ("points" are a term of art for percentage points). Therefore, they are each betting that their friend's film will do better than their own. Specifically it is Lucas feeling his film will not do particularly well. So it seems pretty clear Spielberg was more being nice to his friend than anything else. That said, I think that it still counts as a bet, even if it was a bet meant more as a goodwill gesture than anything else. (Spielberg was good enough friends that he joined Lucas and Lucas' wife on a trip to Hawaii after Star Wars was released. He and Lucas amusingly built an elaborate sand castle together to celebrate the film's success. While there, they worked out plans collaborate on a movie, which turned out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Naturally, even though Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a major success, Star Wars was a phenomenon and took in more than $400 million at the box office worldwide by the end of 1978.

A significant part of the story, though, (and one that Spielberg clarifies in the documentary) is that what was at issue here was NET points, not gross points. Gross points mean that you get a percentage of whatever the film makes. If the film makes $400 million, you get a percentage of $400 million. Net points, however, are a percentage of whatever the film makes after expenses are deducted, and as you might imagine, there are a whoooooooooole lot of expenses when it comes to making a film. In a previous Movie Urban Legends Revealed, I detailed how Paramount Pictures was reporting a net loss of more than $60 million nearly a year after the release of the blockbuster hit Forrest Gump (much to the chagrin of the fellow who wrote the book on which the film was based, who had agreed to 3 percent of the film's net). So while Spielberg certainly has made some money from the staggering success of Star Wars, you'd probably be surprised by just how little he made from his 2.5 percent of the net profits of the film. Still, even if it isn’t a ton of money, it remains a cool story!

The legend is ...

STATUS: Essentially True

Thanks to Steven Spielberg and Turner Classic Movies for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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