He shopped his outline for "Star Wars" to several studios before finding a friend in Alan Ladd Jr., an executive at 20th Century Fox. Despite budget and deadline overruns, and pressure from the studio, the movie was a huge success when it was released in 1977. It grossed $798 million in theaters worldwide and caused Fox's stock price at the time to double.
In one of the wisest business moves in Hollywood history, Lucas cut a deal with distributor Fox before the film's release so that he could retain ownership of the sequels and rights for merchandise. He figured in the 1970s that might mean peddling a few T-shirts and posters to fans to help market the movie. Over the decades, merchandising has formed the bedrock of his multi-billion-dollar enterprise, resulting in a bonanza for Lucas from action figures, toys, spinoff books and other products.
Industrial Light & Magic, the unit he started in a makeshift space in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, moved to the ranch in northern California and lent its prowess to other movies. It broke ground using computers, motion-controlled cameras, models and masks. Its reach is breathtaking, notably among the biggest science fiction movies of the 1980s: "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," ''Poltergeist," ''Back to the Future," ''Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," ''Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and more.
"Between him and (Steven) Spielberg, they changed how movies got made," said Matt Atchity, editor-in-chief of movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.
These days, the talent at ILM has spread around the globe, and many former employees have become top executives at other special effects companies, said Chris DeFaria, executive vice president of digital production at Warner Bros.
"You meet anybody who's a significant executive or artist at a company, they've spent their time at ILM or got their start there. That's probably one of George's greatest gifts to the business," DeFaria said.
Lucas helped make the tools that were needed for his films. ILM developed the world's first computerized film editing and music mixing technology, revolutionizing what had been a cut-and-splice affair. Pixar, the imaging computer he founded as a division of Lucasfilm, became a world-famous animated movie company. Apple's Steve Jobs bought and later sold it to Disney in 2006.
But the goliath Lucas created began to weigh on him. Fans-turned-critics felt the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy he directed fell short of the first films. Others believed his revisions to the re-released classics undid some of what made the first movies great.
Giving up his role at the head of Lucasfilm may shield him from the fury of rebellious fans and critics. He said in a video released by Disney that the sale would allow him to "do other things, things in philanthropy and doing more experimental kind of films."
"I couldn't really drag my company into that."
Still, Lucas is not planning on going to a galaxy far, far away.
Speaking on Friday night at Ebony magazine's Power 100 event in New York, Lucas said: "It's 40 years of work and it's been my life, but I'm ready to move on to bigger and better things. I have a foundation, an educational foundation. I do a lot of work with education, and I'm very excited about doing that."
This week he assured the incoming president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy that he'd be around to advise her on future "Star Wars" movies —just like the apparition of Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi helps Luke through his adventures.
"They're finishing the hologram now," he told Kennedy. "Don't worry."
Liedtke reported from San Francisco. Global Entertainment Editor Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this story.