Released in 1977, Star Wars became more than simply a movie; its standing in Hollywood history is as one of those groundbreaking moments in time that changes, quite literally, everything. Hollywood can be divided into a number of sections: silent era/talkies, B&W/color, Pre-Hay Code/Hays Code/Post-Hays Code censorship. It can also be divided into the movie industry before Stars Wars and the movie industry after. Not bad for a screenplay that came very, very close to never getting made.
Writer-director George Lucas had made a science fiction movie before. THX-1138 was a dystopian nightmare that required intense concentration and provoked argument over its ultimate meaning. Naturally, it was a box office bomb. But it was an impressive enough bomb to get another movie he scripted produced with him behind the camera: American Graffiti. Studios also didn’t want to make that script: it had no storyline and a title that sounded like a foreign movie about feet. (According to some reports).
When a studio finally did decide to take a chance, it was only on condition that a very low budget be assigned which meant that Lucas had to stuff the film with unknown actors. Unknowns with names like Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers and Mackenzie Phillips. The most recognizable name in the cast at the time was Ron Howard and he was still only famous at the time for playing the little redheaded kid Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. It has been estimated by more than a few that if American Graffiti could be remade using every single actor at the height of their earning power that the cost of the cast alone would make it one of the most expensive movies ever made.
The fact that American Graffiti was capable of being produced for less than a million dollars while earning 115 million dollars is the one single factor above all else that can be said to have changed Hollywood forever. If American Graffiti had flopped or only barely made its money back, there is no way in the world that George Lucas would have gained the studio clout to convince Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox—or anyone else—to take a chance on a script about a movie about alien civilizations living a long time ago in a galaxy far away fighting over a moon-sized super-spaceship in which the two character with the most screen time were robots and another important character looked like a Bigfoot.
But American Graffiti did make a ton of money. And George Lucas did gain the clout necessary, and Alan Ladd, Jr. did see something in the script absolutely no other studio head saw. The Hollywood where all these unlikely series of fortunate events took place now sees like a time very long ago in a place very far away.
You probably already know the rest of the story.