Good luck pinning down George Lucas on when Indiana Jones will make his next big-screen appearance. I tried, and then I tried a little more last week, when Lucas flew down from his Skywalker Ranch outside San Francisco to announce a $175 million gift to his alma mater, the University of Southern California. The bearded keeper of the Star Wars flame was doing the interview circuit following the gift announcement, moving between clusters of TV cameras on the smallish Lloyd Stage, stopping every so often to take a phone call or grab a snack.
Forget Lucas' little gift, my burning question was when would he and director Steven Spielberg again suit up Harrison Ford, put a whip in his hand, and send Indy out to crusade against the artifact-stealing bad guys. Hollywood has been buzzing for months that Indiana Jones would rise again. It has been 17 years since the last film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, if nothing else, Viacom-owned (VIA) Paramount Pictures, which distributed the three action-adventure movies, could use a little franchise magic as it struggles to turn itself around.
So when, George? "We need to get it right," he answered me in a droll, almost exasperated way. And the story line? "Indy will be older," is all he offered.
FORD ON BOARD. In fact, I'm told that there has been a lot going on behind the scenes and the next Indiana Jones pic may be finding its way to a press release faster than Lucas is letting on, perhaps 2008. That would probably mean launching production sometime next year, which a source close to the project tells me is "very, very doable."
Studio insiders say that since Spielberg moved to Paramount earlier this year (following its $1.6 billion acquisition of the Dreamworks studio where he makes most of his films), the pressure has been on him to film the next installment.
Spielberg himself told me a few months back that the script, by War of the Worlds writer David Koepp, is getting closer to where he and Lucas want it. And the director assured me that the 64-year-old Ford is on board as well. "Don't worry about him. He's strong enough to pull a PT Cruiser on his back," the director said. Spielberg’s spokesman Marvin Levy says only that Lucas and the director are waiting on the latest script from Koepp and that "there’s nothing new to report." Getting a film ready for 2008 would depend "on having a script that everyone likes" and the schedules for the Big Three, he adds.
However, on the day Lucas and I spoke, his thoughts were clearly on promoting film education, remaking the entertainment industry, and the money he'll give to make both happen. Lucas, who is perhaps the film industry's leading advocate of digital movie production, was at his alma mater to help jump-start programs teaching people how to make films using digital cameras. "
SERIOUS MONEY. "With DVD sales slowing and more alternatives for entertainment, I don't think $100 million films are in the cards," he says. " You can make any kind of film you want, they just can't cost as much."
Lucas says he "found his passion" at USC after starting as an anthropology major, and he hopes to give the school a state-of-the-art, fully digitized building. "Academia tends to not take cinema arts seriously," says Lucas. "They stick it deep down with their other arts."
With his $175 million gift—$75 million for a new school, $100 million to pump up the endowment— Lucas says he's making a bold statement about the importance of cinema arts. He hopes the lure of big bucks will prompt other film schools to upgrade their own programs. "There's money in it for them, too," he says. Among the schools he mentions are the film programs at UCLA, NYU, and Berkeley.
MORE YODA CHARITIES. When you talk to Lucas—not an easy thing as he doesn't give a lot of interviews—you find that beneath the wise-man veneer, Hollywood's Yoda is actually a pretty understated guy. Why pick now to give one of the largest gifts ever to a film school? "I always told them, 'wait until I'm 60,' " says the 62-year-old Lucas. "So, when I finished with the last Star Wars and I decided to more or less retire, I decided this was the time."
He likes architecture, he says, so he started to help design the new USC film school building. Lucas also gives to broader education programs. He provides $3 million a year for his foundation to spread the word whenever he hears of a teacher or school using a particularly successful teaching method. Last fall, he gave $1 million to a fund to build a Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, and he has funded medical research for childhood diseases. "How do you not stop and give something to a child who is sick?" he asks, though he declined to specify which child-related causes he supports.
NOT THROUGH YET. Lucas' definition of "retired" may be a little fluid. He's working on a pair of Star Wars TV shows, and he's been working for 15 years on a movie about the Red Tails, the African-American Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. "I'm done making Star Wars movies, so I've told my guys [at his studio, special effects house, various video-game and other companies] that it's time for them to run the show." He says that in addition to his philanthropic work, he is going to "make the small films that I really want to make."
Of course, he allows, "I do have to executive-produce a couple of movies first." Almost as if by reflex, he reels them off, starting with Indiana Jones. Is that in any special order, I ask him? His response: a crooked smile. The lure of the adventure is starting to build. Harrison Ford had better start working out.