Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Book Report: Empire Building

I've often written in this space that it's a good practice to study successful people in other fields. Even if what they do is completely unrelated to your own career, you can still find a nugget or two to bring to your own life. Who better to study for an engineer, than the creator of the ultimate in nerd subculture?

Empire Building: The Remarkable, Real-Life Story of Star Wars is a really good biography of George Lucas by Garry Jenkins. It starts with his simple but some times rebellious childhood in Northern California and the revised edition ends during production of the unfortunate Jar Jar Binks career vehicle known as Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. In between, though, there are lots of interesting tid bits:

  • In film school, Lucas makes a widely praised version of THX 1138 (that's where the name of the sound certification comes from), which depicts one man's stand against a severely Orwellian future government.

  • Fresh out of school, he teams with Francis Ford Copalla (fresh off of the success of The Godfather) and together they the make a widely panned version of THX 1138 which I happen to own on DVD and have never watched in its entirety because it puts me to sleep.

  • Lucas realizes that everybody knows the world is a cruel, dark place and doesn't exactly want to be reminded of that in a movie. He learns from this mistake and makes the 60s nostalgia feel good movie, American Graffiti, launching a variety of careers (Ron Howard as an adult, Richard Dreyfus, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, and even Wolfman Jack) and ultimately contributing to the new millennium term "Jump the Shark".

  • With some money and newfound leverage, he sells his idea for a "space opera" to 20th Century Fox, cleverly and famously writing into the contract that he owned both sequel and merchandising rights.

  • After a difficult shoot and editing process given the cutting edge special effects work by the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic as well as constant pestering from the movie studio, Star Wars goes on to become a cultural phenomenon.

  • Lucas then rolls over his profits from Star Wars so that he can produce (but not direct) The Empire Strikes Back without interference from any Hollywood movie studio. He enlists former USC Film School professor Irwin Kershner to direct. Fox signs on for distribution and then makes up the difference when the budget goes over what Lucas set aside to finance himself.

  • Rolling over profits a third time, Return of the Jedi is entirely financed by Lucas. He has a heated dispute with the Director's Guild over the order the credits are presented in Empire and is forced to find someone a little more obscure to direct the end of the original trilogy.

  • The success of Jedi is bittersweet when his wife leaves him for another man.
Lessons in control, financing, and work-life balance abound in a setting that just about everybody can find interesting.

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