The Empire Strikes Back Could Have Ended George Lucas' Career

With apologies to "Star Trek" fans, "Star Wars" is undeniably the most lucrative and well-known science fiction franchise in cinema history. If you exclaim "Luke, I am your father" in any crowded room, everyone will know exactly what you're referencing (even if it's not the actual line from the film). Now, try yelling "Khaaaaan!" in a busy store and see how many people look at you like you're crazy. Even "Beam me up, Scotty" might garner some curious glances, but I digress.

Despite its popularity after nine episodic films, two standalone movies, several animated series, and Disney's current and future slate of series and specials (and lest we forget the infamous Holiday Special!), it's amazing that "Star Wars" remains at the forefront of our imaginations. The middle child of the original trilogy – "The Empire Strikes Back" – is now a middle-aged 42-years-old, and is widely considered to be a masterpiece. But it was a bit of an "oops" and "Star Wars" was supposed to be an only child. Not only that, but franchise creator George Lucas' career could've ended after a battle with 20th Century Fox and a big gamble to keep the "Star Wars" franchise alive and true to his vision.

Lucas expected Star Wars to fail

Many fans have always assumed "Star Wars" creator George Lucas planned on a three-film story arc. That's not exactly the case. According to Vanity Fair, the initial plan for "Star Wars" was for it to be a single film. But the story was so extensive that it was too much to fit into one movie. Lucas explained:

"It was going to go from Darth Vader coming in the door killing everybody, to Luke Skywalker realizing that Darth Vader was his father, to them, in essence, being redeemed. That was the movie. The only problem was, it was 250 pages. And at that point, I had $3 million to make it with, so it was like, 'Yeah, right, that's not going to happen.'"

The practical solution was to break the film up into three acts, or episodes. The planned sequels made negotiating with studios difficult. Lucas said he crafted his initial deal with 20th Century Fox based on the thinking that "Star Wars" would fail, allowing the filmmaker to retain the rights to "Star Wars" properties so he could eventually make the sequels.

Then "Star Wars" became a huge success. In hindsight, that type of deal makes Lucas look like a genius. However, at the time, it created all kinds of problems. When it came time to make "The Empire Strikes Back," studios factored in that Lucas owned the rights to the entire project. Lucas said, "So, I made a very tough deal for that film, which everybody in town turned down, every single studio." That left Lucas with one option, which involved gambling with all his past success and borrowing a lot of money.

Lucas gambled everything he owned on Empire

Although Lucas had secured the rights to all things "Star Wars," it came at a steep cost. When every major studio turned Lucas down to make "The Empire Strikes Back," Lucas had no other option but to fund the movie himself. It was a deal that could have cost him everything, including the roof over his head. Lucas said:

"I put all of the money I had, all the money I made on 'American Graffiti,' all the money I made on 'Star Wars,' and I put it up against doing 'The Empire Strikes Back.' So that was everything I owned, my house, everything was put into 'The Empire Strikes Back.'"

The gamble paid off, but just barely. Lucas said he almost lost everything on the movie because it went over budget. According to, Lucas provided half the funding for the film and had to borrow the rest. So when the Battle of Hoth sequence put the movie over budget and several weeks behind, Lucas had to go looking for more money.

Lucas eventually secured a second loan and took a more hands-on approach with director Irvin Kershner to complete the project. Was it worth it? Let's just say it was a gamble that would make Han Solo proud. "The Empire Strikes Back" is largely considered the best film of the nine-film episode arc, and years later Lucas would sell the "Star Wars" franchise rights to Disney for $4.5 billion. All because Lucas bet on himself. A smart deal, no matter how you slice it with a lightsaber.