After AMERICAN GRAFFITI’s surprise boxoffice success, the writing was on the wall that George Lucas was now an A-List director.
Lucas’s only film before GRAFFITI, which premiered Aug. 2, 1973, at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, was his 1971 sci-fi thriller THX 1138 for Warner Bros. & Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope. GRAFFITI, a comedy-drama targeted at teens, was a big departure from sci-fi for Lucas. As things turned out, Lucas never directed anything but sci-fi after making GRAFFITI. His next movie was 1977’s STAR WARS. He went on to produce the franchise’s episodes and to direct three of the later films — THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) & REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).
While making THX, Coppola asked Lucas to write a coming-of-age film. Lucas started by recalling his teenage years in Modesto, California in the ’60s when guys went cruising around town in all sorts of cars to meet girls. When THX was in post-production at WB, Lucas was working on an early screenplay draft for what became Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece APOCALYPSE NOW.
But WB passed on that and Lucas continued developing his teen project, which was then called ANOTHER QUIET NIGHT IN MODESTO. He needed to get a treatment written and hired Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz to work with him. Lucas & GRAFFITI co-producer Gary Kurtz began pitching studios to finance the screenplay. MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox & Columbia all reportedly passed.
After THX opened in March 1971, Lucas had offers to direct a number of films, including TOMMY & HAIR, but decided to develop his own projects. That’s when he came up with the idea for a space movie that evolved into STAR WARS. At the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, where THX was in the Directors’ Fortnight competition, Lucas met United Artists production chief David Picker, who liked GRAFFITI and the space project. In the ’60s, it was Picker who brought in the new James Bond franchise for UA to distribute. Picker agreed to put up $10,000 for a GRAFFITI screenplay.
UA later turned down GRAFFITI, thinking it would cost too much to license the 75 rock ‘n roll hits Lucas wanted to use as his soundtrack. Worse yet, UA passed on what became STAR WARS. Finally, Lucas & Kurtz got a GRAFFITI deal at Universal giving Lucas artistic control & final cut along with a shoestring budget. Universal wanted to change the title to ANOTHER SLOW NIGHT IN MODESTO. Coppola proposed ROCK AROUND THE BLOCK. Fortunately, Lucas persuaded Universal to stay with AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
Lucas made it for just $777,000. It grossed $115M, making it one of Hollywood’s most profitable movies ever.
“None of the films I’ve done was designed for a mass audience, except for ‘Indiana Jones.’ Nobody in their right mind thought ‘American Graffiti’ or ‘Star Wars would work.” – George Lucas