Over the years, Star Wars has made a lot of people an awful lot of money. For his work on the original trilogy, the late great Sir Alec Guinness made an estimated $80 million. On October 30, 2012, Disney spent $4 billion to purchase Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars, and they are projected to make as much as $5 billion on The Force Awakens merchandise alone. The entire franchise is worth an estimated $28 billion, including merchandising, and the new film is on track to make between $180 and 220 million in its opening weekend. Yet there’s one man who made millions — forty of them, to be precise — off of Star Wars without lifting a finger. In fact, all he had to do to rake in the credits was make a bet with his dear friend, George Lucas. The man in question, as I’m sure you’ve sussed out from the title, is none other than Steven Spielberg. This legendary bet has become Hollywood lore, and is a fascinating look into Star Wars‘ financial history — and I’m explaining exactly how it went down on today’s episode of The Dan Cave.
Back in 1977, a troubled young filmmaker named George Lucas made a trip down the Mobile, Alabama to visit his friend Steven Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was there that the two future media moguls made a bet that would change everything. Okay, well maybe not everything, but certainly the finances of two of Hollywood’s most vaunted storytellers. Spielberg revealed the origins of the bet in an interview with Turner Classic Movies.
According to Spielberg, “George came back from Star Wars a nervous wreck. He didn’t feel Star Wars came up to the vision he initially had. He felt he had just made this little kids’ movie.”
After spending a few days on set, Lucas’ confidence was shot and he was convinced that Star Wars was going to pale in comparison to Close Encounters. After the troubled pre-production and filming process on A New Hope, he could hardly be blamed for being so nervous.
But then Lucas decided to make things interesting. Spielberg said that his friend made him an offer he couldn’t refuse:
“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 wondering what they mean by “points,” it is a reference to net points, which refers to a percentage yield of profits on a film after it has recouped its costs at the box office. Considering that Star Wars, which was made for a mere $11 million, went on to make $460 million domestically, that 2.5% that Spielberg picked up went an awfully long way. Essentially, they were offering each other a piece of the action on one another’s movies by gambling on their future success. Clearly for Spielberg, this paid off in spades. (Although Close Encounters was no slouch either, earning $303 million at the box office.)
Per Business Insider‘s estimates in 2014, this deal netted Spielberg an estimated $40 million when adjusted for inflation. All of that cash just for being a good friend. When I drive people to the airport or help them move, I rarely get gas money. Clearly, I need different friends.
Want to learn even more about Star Wars and the weird history of the galaxy far, far away? Pick up a copy of my new book, 100 Things Star Wars Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die! It makes a great stocking stuffer and it’ll give you something to do with your hands while you’re rocking a The Dan Cave t-shirt. (Smooth, Dan, smooth.)
What do you think of this bet? Did Lucas get screwed or did Spielberg get lucky? What’s the craziest bet you’ve ever made? Mine involves a salamander, a forklift, and an entire grapefruit–but that’s a story for another time. Let’s discuss in the comments below!