When "Star Wars" creator George Lucas talks about the way academia regards his craft, he sounds more like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield than a bold Jedi knight. The filmmaker is convinced that colleges and universities don't give the world of cinema serious respect, despite the spread of programs, departments and schools focused on the field.
In the academic hierarchy, the study of film and other "moving images" media "does not rate at the same level as the law school, or the medical school or the school of journalism or the school of architecture. It just isn't thought of in the same breath, which is for me a sacrilege," Lucas said, laughing at the force of his own words.
So now Lucas is striking back.
He spoke at USC on Wednesday, where a groundbreaking ceremony was held to highlight his recent pledge of $175 million to the university, the largest donation in USC's history. One of the main changes the gift will bring will be a new, 137,000-square-foot, two-building complex to house the film school.
The ceremony brought together USC officials, faculty, students and Hollywood luminaries such as Steven Spielberg. It also put a spotlight on the renaming of the film school from the School of Cinema-Television to the School of Cinematic Arts, a change dictated by Lucas to signal the role that moving images -- in films, TV, interactive media or elsewhere -- play in modern life.
Lucas' gift, provided by his Lucasfilm Foundation, was intended to propel his alma mater's cinema programs but also to put other universities "on notice that this is an important discipline and should be taken seriously."
During the ceremony, at a news conference and in interviews, Lucas, who graduated in 1966, also emphasized how his USC education shaped his career and life.
"I discovered my talent here," said Lucas, 62. "When I came here I didn't have a clue about how to make movies, anything -- I didn't even watch movies. I was a real novice."
Lucas grew up in Modesto -- an upbringing reflected in his semi-autobiographical 1973 hit "American Graffiti" -- and attended community college there before coming to USC. These days he is based in Marin County and San Francisco, keeping some geographical distance from the heart of the film industry while running Lucasfilm Ltd. and other enterprises.
Still, he has long contributed to his alma mater, and a film school instructional building -- which will eventually be torn down to make way for the new complex -- already bears his name. The name of his ex-wife, Marcia Lucas, is on another. (Lucas said his name will go on one of the buildings in the new two-structure complex.)
He also served as an advisor to the school, sitting on the film school's board of councilors.
Within the world of film schools, USC already has gotten a top billing. In its most recent ranking of graduate film programs, U.S. News & World Report in 1997 rated USC tied with New York University for first place, with UCLA a close third. Still, one of the knocks on the school has been its cramped, aging facilities.
The donation aims to remedy that problem with a pair of four-story buildings being designed in the Mediterranean Revival style that flourished in Southern California when the film school was established in 1929.
The $75-million project, going up on the northern side of campus on a parking lot near the existing film school buildings, will provide multimedia classrooms, editing labs and other work space, along with faculty offices. Construction is expected to begin early in 2007 and to be completed by December 2008.
Lucas, who described himself as an "amateur architect," is treating the construction project much like one of his cinematic productions. He hired the architects Urban Design Group of Dallas and has worked with them on such minute aspects as the detailing on the archways.
He also decided that the facility will be graced by a sculpture of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences teamed with USC in founding its film school.
To pay for the construction, furnishings and equipment going into the complex, USC plans to use the $75 million that Lucas already has provided as part of his record-setting donation.
The remaining $100 million, yet to be received, will go into an endowment for the School of Cinematic Arts. The areas to be financed by the endowment are expected to be wide-ranging, including the cost of scholarships, faculty, technology, and alumni and academic programs.
Elizabeth M. Daley, the cinematic arts school dean, said there is no specific schedule dictating when the payments are to arrive.
She said the money will bring the school's endowment to $150 million, and she aims to build it further, to about $200 million, in coming years.
Lucas' gift underscores the strong fundraising, totaling more than $4 billion, since USC President Steven B. Sample arrived at the university in 1991. In comments at the groundbreaking, where the USC marching band played the theme to "Star Wars," Sample said Lucas has joined "the ranks of this university's great visionary philanthropists."
Still, Lucas said he isn't ready yet to devote himself fully to philanthropy, even though he plans to phase out his involvement in his current businesses over the next two years. Lucas, who has amassed a personal fortune estimated at $3.6 billion from cinematic enterprises such as his "Stars Wars" and "Indiana Jones" series, said he hopes to spend 10 years or so on innovative technology projects, TV shows and "personal films."
His goal, Lucas said, is to do "whatever I want to do, regardless of whether is has any commercial potential or not."