This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.”
One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?” Lucas says, astonished. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven (Spielberg) or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there, and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it. . . .’ ”
Lucas sighs. It’s true that the movie, “Red Tails,” is a biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen rather than a space opera starring the Skywalker clan. But the snub implied that Lucas’s pop-culture collateral — six “Star Wars” movies, four “Indiana Jones” movies, the effects shop Industrial Light and Magic and toy licenses that were selling (at least) four different light sabers this Christmas — was basically worthless. When “Red Tails” opens in theaters on Jan. 20, it will be because Lucas paid for everything, including the prints.
Let that sink in - George Lucas is responsible for six of the most successful films ever made (ten if you include the four Indiana Jones films) and studio executives still had no interest in making or distributing his passion project. It this wasn't some character drama set in 1400s Europe - this was a film set in World War II with plenty of action! Now perhaps the box office failure of 2006's Flyboys was fresh in everyone's mind ($60 million budget/$13 million domestic gross). Or it could have been, as Lucas stated during a recent visit to The Daily Show, that the all-black cast would be a hard sell abroad.
Either way, for up-and-coming screenwriters, this paints a chilling picture. Every studio in town not only had no interest in making the first non-Star Wars or Indiana Jones film that George Lucas produced in over two decades, they couldn't even figure out how to market it! If every studio in town is too scared to take a chance on George Lucas, what chance do any of us have of wandering outside the box?
This reminds me of the story about how a studio executive suggested that, instead of making Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg and the studio make a large donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exec's logic was that "no one" was going to see a black-and-white movie about the Holocaust.
When you're writing for yourself, you can tell any story you want. When you need someone else's money to tell that story, you're going to have to convince them they'll not only get their money back, but also turn a profit on it. This is why marketability is one of the things that readers like me have to weigh. I'm sure we've all pushed forward commercially dubious material when it's well-written, but marketable screenplays will already rule the day. That's the way the system has always worked and it's never going to change. You can bitch about how unfair that is, or you can attempt to work within it.
Put yourself in the studio's shoes - and ask if they have reason to expect a return on their investment. As much as it pains me to say - think like a studio executive. Those guys might be to skittish to take a risk on the creator of Star Wars - but they're not afraid to insult him by snubbing the screening of his film.
If that doesn't chill your bones, I don't know what will.