Steven Spielberg and the great $40 million Star Wars swindle

Everyone knows George Lucas has made a lot of money over the last few decades. What they might not know is that Steven Spielberg also prospered from Star Wars success with a little belief and a wild wager.

Gambling, in general, isn’t always the best way to pick up a buck. There are odds maker across the globe using analytics and probability to try and pry the cold money from your tear-soaked fingertips. Worst case scenario, you may find yourself hanging upside down from a balcony by two thugs as a fat cat in a white suit chomps a cigar spitting out a lunatic rant in an easy-going, velvety voice. As the saying goes, the house always wins.

But friendly wagers between compatriots rarely ends up worse than missing money for a cup of morning joe or a bald head. That is, unless your friends are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The bet between Lucas and Spielberg has become Hollywood lore, estimates assume that Spielberg has netted over at least $40 million dollars off the deal. That’s a four with a lot of zeros for never lifting a finger.

The story goes back to 1977, before the Star Wars franchise became the most established brand in motion picture history, when it was just Star Wars. Lucas took a few days to step away from wrapping up his soon to be mega-hit when he visited his good friend, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had been in the midst of shooting his very own soon-to-be massive hit, Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

While on the set Lucas confided some of his doubts to his longtime friend. Hot off the heels of his sleeper hit, American Graffiti, Lucas was now dabbling in the science fiction genre. The mid-1970s weren’t particularly known for their sci-fi blockbusters, usually incorporating anti-heros and gritty realism to reflect the level of cynicism and distrust that pervaded through the American landscape. After all, Vietnam was wrapping, Nixon had resigned the presidency in disgrace and the counter-culture of the ’60s was almost fully ingrained in Hollywood. Offering studios Flash Gordan-based throwbacks was a hard pitch for the blossoming director before 20th Century Fox stepped in.

Add more challenges with shoots and ballooning production costs and it was enough to make Lucas a frantic mess.

“George came back from ‘Star Wars’ a nervous wreck,” Spielberg said in an interview with Turner Classic Films. “He didn’t feel ‘Star Wars’ came up to the vision he initially had. He felt he had just made this little kids’ movie.”

Couple that with what Spielberg was accomplishing on set and it was enough to make Lucas feel like Star Wars could never live up to Close Encounters of The Third Kind. after some back and forth, Lucas was so certain that his movie would make less money, he proposed a bet.

“He said, ‘Oh my God, your movie is going to be so much more successful than ‘Star Wars’! This is gonna be the biggest hit of all time. I can’t believe this set. I can’t believe what you’re getting, and oh my goodness.’ He said, ‘All right, I’ll tell you what. I’ll trade some points with you. You want to trade some points? I’ll give you 2.5% of ‘Star Wars’ if you give me 2.5% of ‘Close Encounters.’ So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll gamble with that. Great.'”

For those of you who wonder what Spielberg meant while mentioning points, it has to do with the percentage yielded after the studio has recouped it’s investment. The fact that Star Wars went on to earn $775 million over the course of its worldwide theatrical runs on a mere budget of $11 million is astounding in itself.

There are two things we can all take from this little Hollywood anecdote: one, we clearly need to find richer friends and two, Steven Spielberg was a friend who clearly found George Lucas’ faith in his own film disturbing.