Rules of the game

Investigative journalists are being picked off one by one in Russia. Their "crime", says Roman Shlei

European and American perceptions of Russian life are nothing if not naive. My view is reaffirmed every time I speak to western journalists, and hear the way they interpret the dangers their Russian colleagues face and the limitations imposed on free speech in Russia. It is naivety in the positive sense of the word: a real failure to grasp why Russian state officials do not resign after press revelations have directly implicated them in criminal cases; why the public does not protest when local elections are cancelled; why assassinations of journalists do not bring thousands out on to the streets or provoke questions of the authorities. In Europe, any one of these events would create a level of indignation capable of bringing down a government. In Russia, it passes unnoticed. So what is the point of Russian journalism, if there is virtually no response to revelations either from the public or the state?

For more than ten years I have worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper viewed in Russia as an opposition publication. Currently, I am in charge of the investigations section. The paper appears twice a week and has a print run of 500,000 copies, pretty much average for Russia. It focuses on misappropriation of power and corruption. It also reports on human rights abuses and the repression of opposition. Many western journalists discovered Novaya Gazeta through Anna Politkovskaya. One of her chief areas of interest was the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. She was highly critical of the authorities, both federal and local, for their policies in these regions. In 2006, she was assassinated in the lift of her apartment block.

For our editorial team, this loss was by no means the first. In 1994, our special correspondent Svetlana Orliuk travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to look into the detention of an officer held in a solitary-confinement cell for interrogation. The officer was released and it was acknowledged that his arrest had been illegal. Orliuk died of poisoning. There was no proper official investigation into her death. In 2000, our columnist Igor Domnikov was murdered in the entrance to his home in Moscow. He had been reporting on corruption in Lipetsk Province. The culprits are now in the dock, but the people who ordered the hit are still free. In 2001, Viktor Popkov, a freelance correspondent and human rights activist, was killed in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin - our deputy editor, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Russian parlia mentary commission against corruption - died suddenly in 2003. He had received a number of death threats. A preliminary diagnosis suggested poisoning, but no official investigation ever took place. The killings testify to the fact that, in Russia, journalists have influence and are taken seriously. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 Russian journalists have been murdered over the past 15 years. The Russian Union of Journalists estimates that more than 200 have been killed in ten years.

Appalling as it may sound, we have grown accustomed to these things happening. Anna's assassination provoked a stronger response in the west than it did in Russia. If it had not been for a telephone conversation between the Russian president and George Bush two days after the tragedy, and questions raised by European journalists, Vladimir Putin would probably not even have referred to her death. At a press conference in Germany, he emphasised that Politkovskaya's influence on Russian politics was negligible. He also blamed forces from abroad for her murder. Putin's thinking is shared by other state officials as well as the leaders of state-controlled businesses. They are, in effect, unaccountable to the public (or their shareholders); they look to their superiors alone; and they tend to interpret journalistic criticism as open hostility.

But it would be unfair to point the finger only at the authorities. Russian civil society, including its journalists, is immature, ill-developed and accustomed to being ignored by the state. Most people remain convinced that their views can have no impact. It would be optimistic to estimate that 10-15 per cent of the population is engaged with public life. The passive majority is stirred into action only when its survival or personal welfare is under threat. Russian pensioners came out on to the streets when they were deprived of free travel on public transport, for example. Car owners organised nationwide pro tests when the government attempted to stop the use of right-hand-drive vehicles. Yet when the elections for regional governors were called off in 2004, there was no sign of mass protest.

At present, most people do not consider elections as important as a car or a pension, and cannot imagine participating in decision-making. Journalists writing for publications that are not geared to entertainment or the mass market address a very small proportion of the population.

To be fair, there are signs of change. When, in 2005, the car of a regional governor rammed another at 125mph, the owner of the other vehicle - a member of the public - was deemed respon sible for the accident. With press support, a national wave of protest ensued and the verdict was overturned in March last year. This offers some hope that the public is capable of making its views heard, though the threshold of sensitivity to events remains extremely low.

Dangerous assignments

In the provinces, living standards vary a great deal and it would be a mistake to judge Russia by Moscow or St Petersburg. "The other Russia" begins just beyond the Moscow ring road, and the degree of free speech permitted there is considerably lower than in the capital. The catalogue of assassinated journalists consists mainly of people who worked in the provinces. Their names are unlikely to be publicised in Europe because they reported on local issues: corruption among governors and heads of administration, their links with crime, battles for regional ownership, and the involvement of the local security services, law-enforcement agencies, public pro secutors' offices and courts in these struggles.

Regional assignments are the most dangerous. Local authorities react to publications far more ruthlessly than federal ones. The heads of local administrations and presidents of republics within the Russian Federation have free rein in their dealings with journalists. On their own territory, they are small-time "tsars", and they mimic the central authorities in exaggerated form. The militia, public prosecutor's offices, courts and the special services are deployed to create obstacles for newspapers. Legal justifications are provided for formality's sake, but the game is poorly played and motives behind the allegations are all too visible.

In 2006, a newspaper in Perm, in the Urals, permitted itself to criticise the local authorities. A police search of the editorial offices followed. Militiamen removed computers, servers, discs, flashcards, audio recordings and photographs. That summer, all members of the editorial team faced criminal charges for "causing offence" and "disseminating state secrets". A series of critical articles published in a paper in the mining town of Kemerovo prompted the governors of that province to write to the office of the public prosecutor, demanding that measures be taken against the editor. The regional office of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told the public prosecutor's office it had legal grounds to investigate the paper. In Kaliningrad, a newspaper frequently critical of the local authorities had its entire print run sequestrated, its offices searched and computers confiscated.

Regional newspapers in any position to criticise may belong to local opposition parties (sometimes to local MPs). They may be small publications founded by business people in conflict with the regional administration, who use the newspaper as a weapon in the struggle for private ownership. Or they may be a combination of these. In such conditions, journalistic standards in the provinces are not high and editorial independence is elusive. Never theless, this may be the only opportunity for regional audiences to hear criticism of the local authorities and get access to alternative information.

Clumsy acts

Journalists employed by mainstream publications are in a less dangerous position. Criticism of the federal authorities does not instantly lead to searches, arrests and criminal allegations for one reason - there is no cause for high-level officials to perform clumsy acts of vengeance in full view of the media at home and abroad. It is far more effective to make a deal with a newspaper owner, and if a loyal businessman is persuaded to take ownership of the paper, so much the better. Alternatively, material released by newspapers with small circulations can simply be ignored. Unpleasant reports will not be disseminated widely, because central TV channels, which have tens of millions of viewers, are entirely under state control.

In conditions where law-enforcement agencies, the public prosecutor's office and the courts are compromised and the public is undemanding, the publication of even the most damning information does not bring about change. A multilayered field of protection - loyal owner, obedient television, dependent state arbiters - guarantees that no one will rock the boat. If necessary, legal proceedings can always be opened.

Novaya Gazeta's experience in this area is considerable. One example: a former nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, sued us for defaming his "honour, dignity and professional reputation". By way of evidence we offered the court copies of documents on which we had based an article about him. Adamov won. We then published facsimiles of documents containing the minister's signature, so that our readers would understand how this case had been handled. Some years later Adamov was detained in Switzerland at the request of a US district attorney general. He was extradited to Russia to face criminal charges. A case against him is now under way in the same Russian court. It rests on the very facts to which Novaya Gazeta had originally referred. From time to time, our journalists are summoned to the public prosecutor's office or to the FSB. Generally, a criminal case will be initiated in response to an article that, in the eyes of the public prosecutor or the special services, exposes a state secret. This happened when we published a list of former special service employees who had gone on to work for private business.

It is no secret that Russian state officials have strong links with business. Not long ago, we put together some material about a little-known firm, which had suddenly been granted a highly lucrative contract. After examining the facts, we turned to the company's directors and to state officials for comment. Soon after, Novaya Gazeta was offered US$240,000 not to publish the material. When we refused, we received a series of telephone calls from government employees, and later from the presidential administration. Officials tried to interfere with editorial decisions and stop publication. The material appeared nonetheless and there are now hints of possible legal proceedings.

The most common reaction to criticism of highly placed officials, however, is silence. In 2005, we published lists of criminal cases that had featured the names of President Putin and several cabinet ministers. We called upon one of the former leading investigators in the case in which Putin's name appeared. He had been forced to resign after several cases he was investigating were aborted. All the cases concerned Russian officials, and there was no hope that they would be indicted. After the investigator resigned, he brought a lawsuit against Putin as a common citizen, trying to prove that the cases had been stopped illegally. The court received a letter from the president's office saying that Putin could not be part of the process. We turned to officials for comment but received no response. Even the publication of documents from criminal cases in which the head of state's name has appeared will not bring repercussions. By the next day the public will have forgotten.

Minority interest

A journalist becomes a target not as a result of criticising the Kremlin and the state, as is often thought in the west, but after investigating how the bureaucracy in the regions really functions, where state policies are leading and who stands to gain. These were the issues Anna Politkov skaya addressed. I do not think that a Kremlin official organised her assassination, but the Kremlin is fully responsible for creating the situation in which the murder became possible.

Journalism becomes a threat and a serious irritant when it begins to influence social dynamics. Politkovskaya's reports had this effect because they were seen by foreign human rights organisations as an alternative source of information. She had become more than a journalist: she was a social activist. It is not criticism of the Kremlin itself that endangers Russian journalists, but the threat they pose to an old system of relationships that benefits a tiny minority of people. And that will not be permitted.

Roman Shleinov is investigations editor of Novaya Gazeta

Translation by Irena Maryniak

A version of this article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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Starting Star Wars: How George Lucas came to create a galaxy

On the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, George Lucas biographer James Cooray Smith shares the unlikely story of how the first film got made.

While making THX 1138 in 1970, writer/director George Lucas told composer Lalo Schifrin that he wanted to make a Flash Gordon picture, an updating of the 40s sci-fi serials that he’d enjoyed as a child. It would, however, be those serials not as they were, but how he remembered them as having been. When the rights to these proved unavailable, he began to work on original idea, hoping to create something similar, but which he would own himself.

In January 1973, after completing his 50s nostalgia picture American Graffiti but before its release, Lucas began his outline for this space adventure. The first line of this near-incomprehensible document was The Story of Mace Windu. Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi who was related to Usby CJ Thape, Padewaan learner to the famed Jedi.’

"Jedi" was a word Lucas had coined to describe a clan of warrior mystics who were essential to his story. A man whose fascination for Japanese cinema had become a general interest in Japanese cultural history, he’d named them after the branch of Japanese drama that drew moral and instructive lessons from stories set in the past – Jidai geki.

This version is set in the thirty-third century and features a teenage Princess, droids, an Evil Empire and a grizzled Jedi warrior, General Skywalker, whose plot role resembles Luke’s from the finished film, although his character is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. It climaxes with a space dogfight and ends with a medal ceremony. Among the planets named are Alderaan (here the Imperial capital) and Yavin, at this point the Wookiee homeworld. Some characters from this draft (Valorum, Mace Windu) would eventually find a home in The Phantom Menace more than twenty years later.

By May Lucas had a 132 page script, The Adventure of Anikin Starkiller. Skywalker had acquired the forename Luke but was no longer the protagonist. This was Anikin (sic) Starkiller, one of the sons of General Skywalker’s old comrade, the partially mechanical renegade Kane Starkiller. Anikin had to protect a Princess, aided by two robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Lucas had worked backwards from Flash Gordon, looking to uncover the source of his appeal, hoping to transfer it to his own story. Once he’d worked his way through the comic strips of Gordon’s creator Alex Raymond, he tackled Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne and Edwin Arnold’s Gulliver on Mars. Conversations with his New Hollywood peers about the archetypes thrown up by his reading – and which he increasingly saw everywhere – brought him into contact with Joseph Campbell’s then newly published Myths to Live By (1972) an anthology of lectures and essays from a man who devoted his career to identifying the basic archetypal characters and situations which he felt underpinned all human mythologies.

"The book began to focus what I had already been doing intuitively" Lucas later said, an idea which seemed to him to itself reinforce Campbell’s contention that such archetypes and situations dwelled in a collective unconsciousness. Lucas expanded his reading to epics of all kinds, and began planning a visual style that would combine the vistas of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa with the kind of static-camera realism which he’d used on American Graffiti.

Lucas wanted over-exposed colours and lots of shadows, but shot in a way that made them seem unremarkable. Seeing the Apollo missions return from the moon "littered with weightless candy bar wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon" had illustrated to him the problem with every fantasy movie ever made. Their worlds never looked like people lived in them. His film would depict a "used future". Describing the aesthetic he’d sought to American Cinematographer he explained: "I wanted the seeming contradiction of…fantasy combined with the feel of a documentary."  To Lucas Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, it was "documentary fantasy".

There was only one studio executive Lucas thought had any hope of understanding what he was trying to do, Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr, son of the late actor. Like Lucas and his contemporaries in New Hollywood, Ladd was a man driven by a love of cinema. Lucas could communicate with him through a shared vocabulary, describe a planned scene as being like something from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) or Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966) and be understood. Ten days after his presentation to Ladd, they signed a development deal. Fox agreed to pay Lucas $15,000 to develop a script, plus $50,000 to write the movie and another $100,000 to direct it, should it actually be made. American Graffiti associate producer Gary Kurtz was named as Producer for Star Wars, and received $50,000.

The script development money gave Lucas enough to live on whilst he continued work on the screenplay. As he did so it changed again; a ‘Kiber Crystal’ was written in and then written out. Skywalker became Deak Starkiller’s overweight younger brother before becoming the farm boy familiar from the finished film. Characters swapped names and roles. A new character named Darth Vader – sometimes a rogue Jedi, sometimes a member of the rival ‘Knights of Sith’ – had his role expanded. Some drafts killed him during the explosion of the Death Star, others allowed him to survive; across subsequent drafts his role grew. Some previously major characters disappeared altogether, pushed into a "backstory", Lucas choosing to develop the practically realisable aspects of his story.

This is an important clarification to the idea that Star Wars was "always" a part of a larger saga, one later incarnated in its sequels and prequels. That’s true, but not in an absolutely literal way. Star Wars itself isn’t an excerpted chunk of a vast plotline, the rest of which was then made over the next few decades. It’s a distillation of as much of a vast, abstract, unfinished epic as could be pitched as a fairly cheap film to be shot using the technology of the mid 1970s. And even then much of the equipment used to make the film would be literally invented by Lucas and his crew during production.

In August 1973 Graffiti was released and became a box office sensation, not only did the profits make Lucas rich (he became, at 29, a millionaire literally overnight) its success meant that Lucas was able to renegotiate the terms of his Fox deal. Rather than making demands in the traditional arenas of salary and percentages Lucas wanted control of the music, sequel and merchandising rights to his creations. Fox conceded him 60 per cent of the merchandising, aware of its potential value to them, but eventually agreed that Lucas’s share would rise by 20 per cent a year for two years after the film’s release. Few films made money from spin-off products for a whole 24 months, and Star Wars would surely be no different. Lucas got the sequel rights as well, albeit with the proviso that any sequel had to be in production within two years of the film’s release or all rights would revert to Fox.

Most important amongst Lucas’ demands was that, if it went ahead, he wanted the film to be made by his own company, not by Fox. That way he could control the budget and ensure all charges and costs made to the production were legitimately spent on the film. The experience of watching Mackenna’s Gold being made while a student on placement a decade earlier had taught him just how much money a studio could waste, and on a film like Star Wars – which was both ambitious and would inevitably be under-budgeted – it was crucial that this did not happen. Control of the music rights also had a sound reason behind it. Universal were making a fortune out of an American Graffiti soundtrack that was simply a repackaging of old hits featured in the movie. Of the profits of this Lucas saw nothing despite having selected the tracks featured and fought long and hard for their inclusion in his film.

In March 1975, Ladd took Lucas’ draft to the Fox board. They passed it and budgeted the film at $8.5m. Characters bounced in and out of that script right up to the preparation of the shooting draft, dated 15 January 1976. This was tailored to be as close to the film’s proposed budget as possible, and contain as many of the ideas, characters and situations Lucas had spent the past few years developing as he considered feasible.

This draft is the first version of the script in which Kenobi dies fighting Vader. Previously he had been injured, but escaped with Luke’s party. Alec Guinness, who had already been cast, was initially unhappy with this change, but was persuaded by Lucas that a heroic death followed by appearances as a spectral voice would prove more memorable to audiences than his spending the last third of the film sitting on Yavin whilst the X-Wings went into battle.

Filming began on location in Tozeur, Tunisia on 22 March 1976. Before shooting Lucas sat his crew down and made them watch four films which he felt between them defined what he was after in Star Wars. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1969), Douglas Trumbull’s 1975 Silent Running, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West and Fellini’s Satyricon (Both 1969). The Leone picture was full of the sun-blasted vistas Lucas wanted to evoke for Tatooine, and the Fellini film, with its aspects of travelogue and attempts to portray an entire society in a fly-on-the-wall manner gave an idea of the "documentary fantasy" approach the director was so keen on. All four films shared one vital element: they’re windows onto lived-in worlds remarkable to audiences but regarded as ordinary by the film’s characters.

The first scenes shot for Star Wars were those of Luke buying Artoo and Threepio from the Jawas outside his foster parents’ home. Producer Kurtz had allowed 11 days for the shoot, after that a borrowed army C130 Hercules was scheduled to pick up the cast and crew.

A few days into shooting, creature make-up man Stuart Freeborn was taken ill and had to be flown back to Britain where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Other crew members contracted dysentery. On 26 March Tunisia experienced its first winter rainstorm for half a century, damaging equipment and exterior sets delaying filming of key scenes.

Lucas wanted the stormtroopers to ride ‘dewbacks’, dinosaur-like domesticated beasts that allowed the troops to move across the desert. One dewback was built, out of foam rubber stretched over a wire frame. It could only be used in the background and no one was ever seen riding one. The other live animal Lucas wanted to portray was a Bantha, a huge horned, shaggy beast reminiscent of a prehistoric mammoth. It was to be the mode of transport for the Tusken Raiders, faintly Bedouin, vaguely mechanically-enhanced humanoids who attacked Luke in the Jundland wastes. In the end, creating the beasts proved impossible, and while they were referred to in dialogue in scenes that were shot (‘bantha tracks…’) none of their sequences were lensed.

As hard as the shoot was on Lucas, he at least had an idea of what he was trying to do and how it would all fit together. The actors, suffering stomach troubles, sunburn and long days, were less clear. Anthony Daniels trapped inside an almost immovable fibreglass body suit suffered the worst. Twenty five years later he would give credit for helping him to get through the Tunisia filming to Alec Guinness. "He was incredibly kind to me…I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have completed that arduous task of shooting without him."

Once the Tunisian shoot was over, the cast moved to EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, outside of London. Star Wars was being made in the UK because it wasn’t possible to shoot the film in Hollywood at that time, not that Lucas – with his lifelong disdain of LA itself – wanted to anyway. Star Wars required nine stages simultaneously, something that no Hollywood studio complex could guarantee at anything like sufficient notice. In March 1975 producer Kurtz had flown to Italy to look at studio space, but found nothing suitable. He then caught a plane to London, where Lucas joined him.

Together they scouted UK film studios. Pinewood was a possibility, but management insisted Lucasfilm hire their technicians, a condition which became a deal-breaker. Neither Shepperton nor Twickenham had enough sound stages (although the giant Stage H at Shepperton  - bigger than any stage at Elstree – would ultimately house one scene of the film) which left only EMI Elstree. Then losing £1 million a year, Elstree was being kept open more or less on the insistence of Harold Wilson’s government, whose allies in the Trades Union movement considered the closing of the facility unconscionable. Elstree had no staff, and anyone who wished to rent it had to supply their own technicians and much of their own equipment. Off-putting to many, it sealed the deal for Lucas and Kurtz, who wanted to move their own people in. They hired the facility for seventeen weeks starting at the beginning of March 1976.

To design and build the sets needed to turn to Elstree into a realisation of Lucas’s screenplay they hired John Barry, a British designer who had worked under Ken Adam on Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) a film Lucas admired enough to hire its costumier John Rollo as well.

Elstree’s two largest stages were given over to Mos Eisley Spaceport and the interior of the Death Star. Both the Mos Eisley hangar bay and the one inside the Death Star which replaced it on the same stage were constructed around the full size Millennium Falcon set created by John Barry’s protege Norman Reynolds. Built by Naval engineers at Pembroke Dock, Wales it was 65 feet in diameter, 16 feet high and 80 feet long. It weighed 23 tonnes.

The absence of Stuart Freeborn, still recovering from Tunisia, meant that most of the aliens seen in the Mos Eisley cantina sequence were completed by assistants and lacked any articulation at all. Unhappy with the scenes as shot, Lucas resolved to do to re-shoots back in the USA.

The last scenes to be shot were for the opening battle, as Vader and his stormtroopers boarded the blockade runner. With little time Lucas used six cameras, manning one himself (Kurtz manned another) and shot the sequence in two takes. The six cameras produced so many different perspectives on the action that even the duplicated events that are in the film are unnoticeable. The finished sequence, chaotic though the creation of it was, is amongst the best put together moments in the movie, a superb evocation of Lucas’ documentary fantasy approach, and the cameras dart in and out of the action like reporters shooting newsreel footage. Virtually the first live action seen in the picture, its style later went a long way towards convincing audiences that what they were seeing was somehow real.

Principal photography completed on 16 July 1976, although some re-shoots and pick up shots for the Tatooine sequences were undertaken in Yuma, Arizona in early 1977. Amongst those scenes shot were those featuring the Banthas. Lucas borrowed a trained elephant from Marine World, and had it dressed to resemble a more hirsute, fearsome pachyderm. Mark Hamill was unavailable to participate. He’d crashed his car of the Antelope Freeway in LA shortly before and was undergoing painful facial reconstructive surgery. Although Hamill should have been involved in the re-shoot, in scenes of Luke’s landspeeder moving across the desert, Lucas had no choice but to film them without him; he took a double to the shoot, dressed him in Luke’s costume and put Threepio in the foreground. Also re-shot, over two days in La Brea, California, were portions of the cantina sequence. New cutaways and background shots were filmed to be inserted into the Elstree footage in order to eliminate as of the unsatisfactory masks as possible.

While supervising editing of the film Lucas experienced chest pains, and was rushed to hospital where he was treated for a suspected heart attack. He was later diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion, both exacerbated by his diabetes.

Fox were by now trying to book Star Wars into cinemas, and had picked a release date in May, long before the 4th July public holiday, long regarded as the opening weekend of summer. Fox wanted $10m in advance bookings for Star Wars, desperate to recoup an investment that internal studio sources had now decided was foolish. They secured less than $2m, and achieved that only by implying to theatres that they wouldn’t be offered Charles Jarrot’s much-anticipated The Other Side of Midnight if they didn’t sign up for Star Wars too. Before its release several exhibitors complained at this "block booking" and filed suits; Fox was later fined $25,000 for the practice, punished for forcing cinemas to agree to show something which was, by the time they paid the fine, the most financially successful movie ever made.

In early 1977 Lucas screened Star Wars for a group of friends, it was nearly finished – although the opening crawl was longer and many of the special effects shots were absent, represented instead by sequences from World War II films and real combat footage shot by the USAF. Among those present were Brian De Palma, Alan Ladd Jnr, Steven Spielberg and Jay Cocks. Martin Scorsese had been invited but troubles editing his own New York, New York meant he didn’t turn up.

De Palma hated Star Wars, and spent the post-screening dinner rubbishing it to anyone who would listen. Others present were unsurprised, De Palma had behaved in the same way during the group screening of Scorsese’s’ Taxi Driver; laughing loudly through Cybill Shepherd’s conversations with Robert de Niro, and at one point shouting "Shit!" halfway through a tense scene. Only Spielberg seemed impressed, and told Lucas that he thought Star Wars would take $100m. Lucas pointed out that nothing took $100m, and countered that Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind would do better at the box office. The two directors wrote what they considered realistic estimations of what each other’s film would make in its first six months of release on the inside of matchbooks, which they then traded. By the time Lucas got round to opening Spielberg’s matchbook and saw the figure $33m in his friend’s scrawling hand Star Wars had already made ten times that.

Odd as it seems now, when every blockbuster is prefaced by months of breathless, unrelenting media "enthusiasm", Star Wars wasn’t released on a wave of hype or accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign. It was released (on 25 May 1977) to thirty-two screens, after a barely publicised premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It made $2.8m in its opening week, but didn’t receive a nationwide release for two months. Despite almost unprecedented success in preview screenings, Fox were still unsure of what to do with Lucas’ bizarre children’s film. Indeed it, only got a Hollywood opening at all because William Friedkin’s Sorcerer – which had been intended for this slot at Mann’s – wasn’t finished.

So negative had advance feeling about Star Wars been that Lucas left the country; he was still in LA on opening day, finishing the sound edit (he was unhappy with the copy playing downtown, and unknowingly embarking on a lifetime of revising his movie) but the next day he and his wife (and Star Wars film editor) Marcia flew to Hawaii, where they were joined by friends, including Spielberg and Amy Irving. It was an attempt to escape what Lucas felt would be the inevitable terrible reviews and wrath of the studio. Even when Ladd called him to share his excitement over the movie’s colossal opening weekend, Lucas was unmoved; all movies labelled science fiction did well in their first few days due to the business attracted by the neglected fanbase for such things. It was only when the film continued to do outstanding business and was expanded to more and more theatres that Lucas considered returning early from his holiday, and began to realise that the film he’d just delivered had changed his life.

As "Star Wars" expanded into more cinemas, and people began to queue round the block to see it, shares in Fox climbed from well under $10.00 to $11.50 each; over the next three months the value rose to $24.62, nearly trebling in price, such was the film’s value to the embattled studio. It was a magnificent vindication for Alan Ladd Jr, who had more than once had to intervene to stop colleagues closing down the film’s production completely. He had never lost faith in Lucas and his bizarre idea, but he was virtually the only person employed by Fox itself who hadn’t.

Just a few weeks before, as the end of the financial year approached, Fox had tried, and failed, to sell its investment in Star Wars to a German merchant bank as an emergency pre-tax write off.

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