Hedging your bets
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, buddies George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made a friendly bet.
Star Wars is a billion-dollar franchise. When Disney bought the property last year, it sold for another 4 billion dollars, and with new films planned, it’s safe to say that it will continue to bring in billions more.
Of course, expectations originally weren’t so high. Although filmmakers tried to drum up buzz for the film’s release, the studio was still pretty worried about competition, and decided not to release the film on Memorial Day (pretty much the Super Bowl of movie release dates). Instead, 20th Century Fox opted to release the film the Wednesday before Memorial Day to get a jump on the competition. And just what film were the studios so worried about?
Today, it’s hard to see that as tough competition for Star Wars. Even still, only 40 theatres ordered Star Wars, and Fox had to threaten theatres to take it if they wanted the eagerly-anticipated adaptation of The Other Side of Midnight.
This lack of confidence wasn’t limited to studio executives. Even the film’s writer/director George Lucas didn’t have much faith in the film’s chances. He wasn’t worried about Smokey and the Bandit, though. The film he was sure was going to outperform Star Wars at the box office was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by his friend Steven Spielberg. Lucas visited Spielberg on the set of that film and was impressed with the enormous sets and the scale of the film and became even more dismayed. Spielberg saw the potential in Star Wars, however, and thought it would be the bigger film.
He was even willing to bet on it.
So the two decided to trade percentage points in the profits of their respective films to share in the success of whichever film came out on top. Lucas received 2 ½ points of Close Encounters and Spielberg received 2 ½ points of Star Wars.
History has been pretty kind to Close Encounters. The film was very successful: it was responsible for saving Columbia Pictures from bankruptcy, garnered eight Academy Award nominations, and was declared “the greatest science fiction film ever made” by no less than Ray Bradbury. Still, it was no Star Wars.
I’m sure when those checks for his 2 ½ % of the profits come in, Spielberg still sees that sometimes it’s good to hedge your bets.