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Why George Lucas Took A Half-Million Dollar Pay Cut On The First Star Wars Movie

It's easy to look at Star Wars now and say that it was obvious it would be as successful as it is. But back in 1977, Star Wars was a risky project. It took director George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz a long time to get anyone to sign on, and even once 20th Century Fox did, according to the BBC, it still wasn't with much support. 

Once the original movie got into production, the problems didn't stop, as the film dealt with malfunctioning technology, rising costs, and a crew that didn't take the movie seriously (via American Heritage). Lucas even had to create his own visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, because 20th Century Fox didn't have one at the time. When the film was finally finished, the movie was "released only in 37 cinemas" but quickly did very well — so Fox expanded it, as producer Kurtz discussed with IGN

Star Wars' success was an extreme surprise, and the film was still playing in theaters "six months after it opened," which is a big deal even now. The movie was made with $11 million, and went on to make around $503,000,000 at the box office, a figure that's only from the initial release. 

Lucas had so many forces fighting against him to stop Star Wars from being made, but against the odds, he was convinced it would be successful. This is most evident in a decision he made midway through filming to give up $500,000 of his own paycheck — getting something way more valuable in return, which Fox didn't realize at the time.

George Lucas gave up $500,000 of his paycheck to get the full Star Wars merchandising rights

Fox clearly had very little faith in the small space opera called Star Wars, and Lucas knew it. In what was likely one of the best business decisions he ever made, as written by The New Yorker, Lucas gave up "an additional five-hundred-thousand-dollar fee from Fox for directing 'Star Wars' and [decided] to take the merchandising and sequel rights instead." 

20th Century Fox probably regretted that choice for years afterward.

From the film's release in 1977 until 2012, Star Wars made more than $20 billion just selling licensed merchandise, via The Hollywood Reporter. Knowing that, it's hard to imagine how much money the Star Wars franchise has made in its entirety to this day, almost a decade since that report, but it's certainly a lot. With a continually-expanding universe, there have been animated programs, spin-off films, live-action TV shows, comic books, video games, and a variety of other media since the first film, all based on that original Star Wars trilogy. One of the franchise's biggest money-makers is its presence at theme parks, with a Star Wars-themed land called Galaxy's Edge at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as the all-immersive Star Wars Galactic Cruiser hotel in Orlando, Florida.

Despite all the early signs having pointed to the film's failure, Lucas had a clear vision for what he wanted to create with Star Wars, and was unwilling to quit. It paid off. Eventually, Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, retired from filmmaking, and is now able to just sit back and watch his Star Wars legacy grow.