Why Did George Lucas Quit the DGA?

The Big Picture

  • George Lucas revolutionized the placement of credits in films, shifting from pre-credits to an end credits sequence, which is now commonly used.
  • Lucas’s decision to place all credits at the end of his films led to his departure from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) due to violations of their regulations.
  • Despite his unconventional approach to filmmaking and his outsider status in Hollywood, George Lucas’s influence on the industry and filmmaking techniques is immeasurable.

There is no limit to the influence that George Lucas made on Hollywood. His career-defining achievement, Star Wars, is a franchise that shows no signs of slowing down and expanded to broader mediums beyond cinema. Studios and filmmakers have sought to replicate the magic of the film and its ensuing series for over 45 years. Along with Jaws, Star Wars, for better or worse, established the blockbuster and altered the medium on the grounds of production, distribution, and marketing. Despite his sprawling impact on the industry and artistic medium, Lucas was forever an outsider after stepping away from the Director’s Guild of America, or DGA, in 1980 – all because of an end credits sequence.

How George Lucas Manipulated the DGA’s Credit Sequence Formula

Han and Leia Almost Kiss in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Image via Lucasfilm

Audiences are accustomed to a credits sequence listing all the cast and crew rolling at the end of a film. Before Star Wars, except on the rarest occasions, there were only pre-credits, which ran before the opening shot and only listed the cast and major crew members. There was no sudden shift in the placement of credits in feature films, as films through the ’60s and ’70s would contain brief credits at the end. A film like West Side Story adopted the model of listing cast and crew credits at the end 16 years before George Lucas.

In 1973, before Lucas had all the money in the world and was just part of the class of rebellious, New Hollywood filmmakers trying to get a foot in the door, Lucas directed the coming-of-age ’50s-nostalgia dramedy, American Graffiti. The begins with an extensive opening sequence that credits all members of the technical crew and solely the department heads. Star Wars famously opens with an opening crawl detailing the backstory of this then-unknown universe accompanied by a magical score by John Williams and proceeds right into the action. No credits, including the one citing the authorship of George Lucas, are displayed until the very end.

The official union of film and television directors in the United States, the Directors Guild of America (DGA), has stipulations regarding directorial credits. Unless further exceptions are presented to the guild, only one individual can hold a directing credit to prevent actors and producers from claiming authorship. The guild contains provisions on the placement of credit titles ruling that any credit allocated to an individual must be shared with the director. Since Star Wars featured no credits besides the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos at the beginning, the DGA approved of Lucas’ credit appearing at the end.

Why Was the DGA Upset with George Lucas?

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Image via LucasFilm

George Lucas’ relationship with the DGA turned sour when, upon the release of the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he carried over the same credit structure as before. Suddenly, the guild took umbrage at Lucas’ decision to place all credits at the end. The problem stemmed from the evident fact that Lucas, in fact, did not direct The Empire Strikes Back. This was indeed a film by Irvin Kershner, with Lucas taking on more of a supervising role in the series. Copying from the previous film, Empire opened with a credit for Lucasfilm, which the DGA interpreted as a credit for Lucas himself, which violates the guild’s regulations.

Irvin Kershner, speaking in a profile of 1981 profile on George Lucas by The New York Times, did not object to his placement of credits in the film. The director’s consent was a moot point, as the DGA could not be appeased. Lucas had to abide by the guild’s guidelines. What appeared to be a benign request by the DGA resulted in the creator of Star Wars’ public departure from the guild. In the Times article, Lucas railed against the infectious political system in Hollywood. In Hollywood, according to Lucas, “For every honest true filmmaker trying to get his film off the ground, there are a hundred sleazy used-car dealers trying to con you out of your money.” From this point forward, Lucas, despite his box office and cultural supremacy with an additional Star Wars sequel and prequel trilogy nearly twenty years later, observed the film industry from the outside–exactly how he preferred.

When orchestrating Return of the Jedi, continuing his supervisor role, Lucas searched far and wide for a director outside the system, whether that constituted a young, maverick voice yet to be indoctrinated into Hollywood or a foreign filmmaker removed from American politics entirely. It has been well-documented that coming off the critical success of The Elephant Man, David Lynch was offered the role to direct the third Star Wars film. When Lucas personally asked him for the job, Lynch stated that he had “next to zero interest.” Lucas also expressed interest in another up-and-comer filmmaker of twisted and abnormal thrillers, David Cronenberg, to direct Jedi, but he was apathetic to carrying out someone else’s vision.

Eventually, Lucas selected little-known Wales director Richard Marquand to run the ship of the then-final Star Wars film. Even though Marquand was relatively inexperienced, having recently directed the thriller Eye of the Needle, which Lucas was fond of, he was not a member of the DGA–a crucial attribute of the director. Fans have alleged that Lucas ghost-directed the 1983 film all along, but when interviewed, Marquand, who died in 1987, he cited that the film’s operatic, theatrical production design is a product of his singular vision.

RELATED: We Actually Have George Lucas and Steve Jobs To Thank for Pixar

What George Lucas’ Departure From the DGA Says About His Career

Harrison Ford in 'The Empire Strikes Back'
Image via Lucasfilm

This pivotal moment in George Lucas’ career is indicative of the meticulous vision that he carried at all times, even with the most minor aspects of filmmaking. His mind is packed with a plethora of eccentricities and cinematic influences, and it is the backbone of the franchise being the colossal cultural touchstone that it is today. Furthermore, Lucas is so immersed in his passions, he cannot fathom that any corporate or unionized body would undermine his vision, even if it concerns the innocuous nature of credit placement. Despite Star Wars being emblematic of the incessant commercialization of Hollywood, Lucas, along with his New Hollywood friends Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, was rebellious, and his contempt for the politics of the industry is profound. Now understood in the film community as a hermetic figure, Lucas went as far as to finance the budget of The Phantom Menace, the first of the prequel trilogy, with his own money from Lucasfilm.

On a grand scale, this story represents George Lucas’ thorny relationship with filmmaking, despite that being his occupation responsible for his great wealth. In the history of Star Wars and its creator, there is a throughline of antipathy towards directing on Lucas’ part, with his friends and colleagues needing to motivate his collaborative interests. When he turned down the opportunity to direct Jedi from Lucas, David Lynch told him that he ought to direct the film considering Star Wars is his creation made from scratch. Lynch further surmised that Lucas “doesn’t really love directing.” His good friend Steven Spielberg, who also was once asked to take control of Jedi, convinced, along with Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard, a hesitant Lucas to direct the Star Wars prequel trilogy himself. While his creative brilliance and wits are unquestionable, Lucas’ lack of compromise and cooperation makes him inherently unfit for Hollywood.

Nonetheless, George Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and filmmaking at large is limitless. Decades following the credit structure fiasco between the Star Wars creator and the DGA, manipulation of opening and closing credits is accepted, if not expected from audiences. Prominent filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have ditched opening credits and title cards, and instead shift them to the end of their films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe made end credits sequences an event, as the famous post-credits scenes containing as consequential stakes as the body of the film. No one knew at the time, but Lucas was one step ahead of everyone else.

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