Have Lucas and Spielberg Ruined the Movies?

Slate has an ongoing debate between David Edelstein and Joe Morgenstern on the topic “Did George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Ruin the Movies?” The premise of the debate is that they ushered in the era of hyper-expensive special effects movies, which in turn made formulaic films and, especially, sequels, the Hollywood norm.

Edelstein starts first:

[…] In January 1988, I was at the Sundance Film Festival, where producer Gale Anne Hurd was on the jury. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing from Hollywood about the cost of Die Hard. For one thing, Bruce Willis had been paid $6 million. Unprecedented! And for a television actor! Of course, certain infamous super agents took this as their cue to demand more and more money for their clients: Two years later, even Willis’ wife, Demi Moore, was earning $12 million a picture (and those pictures were bombing).

The other anecdote involves Elvis Mitchell, who had a job at Paramount in the early ’90s. One day he told me, with a little sneer, that executives there referred to Star Trek as “the franchise.” I laughed derisively. The franchise! A franchise is a McDonald’s, a True Value Hardware! Movies aren’t franchises! Less than a decade later, the term “franchise” was used openly. A top executive at Warner Bros. earnestly explained to reporters that he wanted the studio to be in the franchise business exclusively—hence Batman, Harry Potter, etc. It reminded me of another story I heard, that in the ’90s a studio conducted an expensive marketing study to determine which kinds of films were the most consistently profitable—the theory being that then it would only make that kind of movie. Months later, the answer came back. Yes, there was one type of film that did consistently better: sequels.

Still, he tends to like Lucas and Spielberg movies and doesn’t think the decisions made by movie execs are their fault: “Who knew that studios would pursue Jaws and Star Wars ever after—and that there would then be a spate of shitty outer space and monster movies?”

Indeed. Morgenstern’s response has not been posted as of this writing but the exchange will be at the above link.

Tom Shone has a companion piece entitled, “Lucas vs. Spielberg – The worst best friends in Hollywood.”

It’s not the first time that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have released movies in the same year, but it is the first time they’ve launched summer blockbusters into each other’s airspace, and so similarly bellicose of theme–Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith opened on May 18, while Spielberg’s War of the Worlds arrives in time for July 4. It is a battle that, in terms of the box office, Spielberg is expected to lose–Revenge of the Sith has already taken in $400 million in just over three weeks, while War of the Worlds’ top projections stop short of $300 million. But the two box-office titans have nonetheless been busy perfecting their impression of two pals helping each other out in the backyard.

Spielberg–it was revealed–had lent a helping hand to the climactic light-saber duels in Sith. “George gets stuck sometimes,” said producer Rick McCallum, as if the Star Wars saga were a particularly stubborn patch of lawn. “He never asks for help, but you can feel it when he needs it. With Steven he got encouragement from a directing peer and a good friend.” Meanwhile, Spielberg hired the same pre-viz-effects supervisor sent to him by Lucas to help with his aliens for War of the Worlds, much as you or I might borrow a trowel or Rotavator. “We’ve always helped each other,” said Lucas when approached by the cable network A&E about a documentary detailing the rivalry between the two directors. “[Spielberg] and I have never had an argument in our lives. … I want DreamWorks to succeed. They want me to succeed. And we’re going to help each other succeed.” So, there you have it: just two successful movie titans succeeding, side by side, successfully.

Rivalry may not be quite the right word for the relationship that exists between Lucas and Spielberg. What they have is far more subtle: something more like the impacted, covert, passive-aggressive version of rivalry practiced by siblings–wherein any hint of hostility is buried in a bear hug and conflict covered with a smile. Theirs is a battle fought out in box-office millions and backhanded compliments, blockbusters, and casual slights. “He’s taught me a lot about creative compromise,” Spielberg once said of Lucas, with a straight face. And when Spielberg repeatedly begged to direct one of the new Star Wars episodes, Lucas reported the story with the glee of a child keeping his favorite toy just out of reach. “I was getting ready to shoot in Australia,” Lucas told reporters, “and Steven was whining on the phone all the time, ‘Oooh, I’m sitting here by the pool, and poor me, I don’t have a movie to direct … ‘ “

Whatever one thinks of the impact these men have had on the industry, they’ve definitely had an impact. If one can excuse Lucas for forcing Jar-Jar Binks on the world–granted, a big If–it’s hard to get too mad at them for putting out movie after movie that people want to see. That is, after all, their job.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DaveD says:

    This is an interesting supposition. Of course Lucas and Spielberg are very, very good at what they do. Although I think Spielberg has more versatility than Lucas; think Schindler’s List. It just seems like, for the most part, the only thing Hollywood has to offer now is remakes, sequels and movies with weak themes. Couple that with the expense of having to sit through a bad movie. There is also the fact that movie screens are getting smaller to accomodate the Multiplex, TV screens that you can have at home are beginning to approach the size of the screen in the theatre, and the rapid availability of movies on DVD in no time after theatrical release all combine to make movie going a progressively less unique experience. Lastly, the innovative films seem to come from independents who are driven more by creativity than $. Just some observations – don’t know how valid they truly are.

  2. denise says:

    David D. — You’re right about the movie theaters (among other things). I am continually amazed that most cities of any size don’t have great theaters like we have in Wichita: The Warren. They do have multiple screens, but they are wonderful, with carpeted floors, cushy seats, large screens, mostly stadium seating, somewhat lower concession prices . . . They even have waterfall curtains in their larger theaters, and one theater has a balcony with loveseat style seats, and you can order dinner and drinks (yes, alcoholic ones) right from your seat. Check out http://www.warrentheatre.com

  3. DC Loser says:

    I too lament the glorification of special effects to the detriment of good script writing, good acting, and a good plot. It’s a rare film that can put all three together. The last Hollywood film I saw that had all three was Eternal sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I just saw Aviator and thought that was pretty lame. Even the special effects weren’t that great. From all the hype during the Oscars, I’d have thought it was at least as good as Eternal Sunshine, but in the end it was all hype and I could barely stay awake watching it.

  4. Anderson says:

    What always puzzles me is how little Hollywood execs seem to know/care about the difference between a good movie and a bad one.

    We’ve all seen trailers where, when they’re over, we’re convinced the movie will suck. And it does. And it bombs. Why can’t these millionaire execs figure this out a little earlier in the process?

    I suspect they don’t even go to movies themselves.

  5. McGehee says:

    I agree with Anderson, believe it or not.

    I don’t agree with Reggie.

    Believe it or not.

  6. Anderson says:

    Um, thanks for sharing, Reggie, but don’t you have a Michael Jackson blog to go visit?