George Lucas offered a bleak assessment of the current state of the film business during a panel discussion with Robert Redford at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, saying that the movies are “more and more circus without any substance behind it.”
However, the “Star Wars” director hit back at critics who said his role in kicking off the blockbuster film business has watered down cinematic storytelling.
“If you go into ‘Star Wars’ and see what’s going on there, there’s a lot more substance than circus,” he argued.
In its day, “Star Wars” represented a major breakthrough in technology, and it’s easy to discern a through line from the galaxy far, far away to the comic book movies and special-effects driven productions that dominate today’s movie screens. The tools he helped popularize were all in the service of plot, he argued.
“All art is technology,” said Lucas. “That’s the one thing that separates us from animals.”
Redford, who is best known for character-driven films such as “The Way We Were” and “Out of Africa,” praised Lucas’ decision to finance his “Star Wars” films and maintain a tight grip on their creative and commercial future.
“What I admire about what he’s done is he’s been able to control his own universe,” said Redford.
The panel discussion was ostensibly about storytelling, but it covered a wider array of topics, from the pair’s origins in the entertainment industry to the economics of the movie business.
Lucas also let the audience in on the secret to his enormous wealth: “All the money is in the action figures,” he said.
The men are two of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, but both Lucas and Redford stressed that they saw themselves as rebels.
Positioning themselves outside of the studio system were the key to their most enduring successes — Lucas’ space fantasy “Star Wars” and Redford’s founding of Sundance, the indie gathering that marked its third decade this year. And both men stressed that they came of age during the hippie movement, a time when youth was king and no one trusted any authority figure over 30.
“”All of us in film school hated the establishment,” said Lucas. “It was the sixties.”
That anti-establishment drive led him to maintain a geographical remove from the major studios. He made his home base in San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles. That in turn forced him to create Industrial Light and Magic and LucasFilm, twin poles of a pop culture empire that not only fielded “Star Wars,” but also the Indiana Jones franchise.
“Studio executives generally are not the most sophisticated people in the world…you do not want to be oppressed by people who are not as smart as you are and I’m dumb,” said Lucas.
As for Redford, studios shift away from the darker, more personal dramas of the 1970s and ’60s into broader and more mainstream fare in the 1980s prompted him to create a haven for emerging artists who wanted to remain true to their artistic voices.
“We thought if we had a festival at least artists could come together and see each other’s work,” said Redford.
Moral complexity defined many of Redford’s most enduring works, such as “Downhill Racer” and “The Candidate,” both of which examine the limitations of the American dream. Those are the kind of films he loved and the type of challenging fare that frightens studios.
“I see an America that’s more in a grey zone, where things are more complex,” said Redford. “I wanted to tell those stories.”
This year’s festival has been praised for its range of voices, with roughly a third of the films in Sundance’s U.S. dramatic competition directed by women. That’s the future of independent film, Redford stressed.
“Independence and diversity go hand in hand in my mind,” said Redford.
He noted that beyond the movie theater, the world faces a series of economic and environmental challenges, but he remained optimistic about the future.
“Young people are really, really smart – years ago it seemed like they were disenchanted with the system,” said Redford. “Now they want the reins.”
Lucas seemed more puzzled by the current state of culture. The man who took big screen fantasies to bold new worlds, said he never could have predicted the smallness of popular entertainment options on platforms such as YouTube.
“I would never guess people would watch cats do stupid things all day long,” said Lucas.