The green lights of Star Wars
A lament you constantly hear in Hollywood is today’s lack of risk-taking, and how so many great movies from the 70’s wouldn’t get made today.
And as odd as it to believe today, Star Wars was a risky project that no one knew the potential of until late in the game.
Alan Ladd Jr. is of course the son of the famous movie star Alan Ladd, but Ladd Jr. made his own place in Hollywood history.
He joined 20th Century Fox in 1973, and became president in 1976. Fox had a number of ups and downs throughout its history, most notoriously with the big budget Elizabeth Taylor debacle Cleopatra, which almost put the studio out of business.
By the time Ladd became studio president, Fox was back on the upswing with the success of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, and The Omen.
Yet before the massive success of Star Wars, science fiction was considered a limited genre that didn’t "crossover" to everyone. Not to mention the outline for the film made no sense on paper, and both Universal and United Artists passed on it.
The sci-fi genre was especially anathema to Universal. As former Universal president Thom Mount recalls, the patriarch of the company, Lew Wasserman, "had turned down Star Wars famously at Universal. After American Graffiti, Lucas was obligated to offer his next picture to us, so he brought Star Wars to the company. Mr. Wasserman read it, and his words were very simple: 'We don’t make science fiction movies.' End of conversation. The company didn’t really do much science fiction. We dabbled around the edges here and there, but since Lew didn’t like it as a genre, we didn’t pursue it very hard."
Less than a week after Universal officially passed on Star Wars, it was set up at Fox. Having seen American Graffiti three months before its release, Ladd loved and green lit the film, and was willing to bet on Lucas before he was a proven commodity at the box office.
Most couldn’t see the vision of Star Wars until the film was complete, which would make any studio executive nervous, but as Ladd told us, "Star Wars is a classic good against evil story. Those have always proven to be winners, and if George could pull off half of what he talked about... He described it in terms of Robin Hood and Buck Rogers, which I was very familiar with. I knew he was striking new territory, and I just believed in him. And I believed that if anybody could ever pull it off it would be him.
"I feel a great sense of pride that I was involved in Star Wars,” Ladd continues. "It helped establish me in the business, and gave me a stronger reputation that I had the courage to say yes to it."
Where a lot of studio executives constantly meddle movies into mediocrity, Ladd was an executive who liked films and filmmakers, and let them follow their hearts. He told Variety, "My biggest contribution to Star Wars was keeping my mouth shut and standing by the picture."
Once Star Wars became a monster hit, it allowed Ladd to green-light smaller, riskier movies that didn’t always have the biggest audience potential, but if the budgets stayed low, he’d leave you alone. If a picture flopped, it didn’t cost the studio that much, but if it was a hit, the rewards could be huge.
Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Superman, Live and Let Die), took a dark comedy, Mother, Juggs and Speed, to Fox, with Peter Yates (Bullitt) directing. Ladd told them, "If you guys can make this for $3 million, go make it and I won’t interfere with anything." It didn’t do blockbuster business, but The Omen, which Richard Donner had to make on a tight $2 million dollar budget, became a big smash.
When Ladd left Fox and formed the Ladd Company, he continued making edgy films like Blade Runner, and Star 80, the bleak Bob Fosse movie about murdered centerfold Dorothy Stratten. Just as Star Wars provided the money that could fund smaller films, the Ladd Company had a big hit with the Police Academy series, which as Ladd told Variety, "paid the rent so we could afford to do other things."
These days, with so much money at stake, risks are not encouraged at major studios. Everyone wants to think they’re players, but no one wants to roll the dice.
"In my time, I was very lucky that I had creative control and I could make decisions like that," says Ladd. "Now you’ve got fifty accountants all sitting around a table trying to make a decision. That’s why you get so much crap now, because nobody’s putting their individual input into taking chances on something. They’re all trying to play it so safe, but when you try to play it safe you’re not going to make anything interesting at all."