"Star Wars" creator George Lucas is giving USC a blockbuster donation of $175 million -- the university's biggest single gift ever -- that largely will be used to build a new home for its prestigious film school, campus officials confirmed Tuesday.
The gift from his Lucasfilm Foundation builds on Hollywood's historic support for the cinema school, where Lucas earned a bachelor's degree.
Much of the donation is to pay for a 137,000-square-foot complex. According to preliminary information provided to Los Angeles city officials, it would be designed to evoke the architecture of the era when the film school was founded in 1929.
That new centerpiece building will expand its current cramped quarters and provide modern facilities that could boost the school's stepped-up emphasis on merging Hollywood storytelling skills with emerging multimedia technologies.
USC's previous top gift, $120 million, came in 1993 from the late ambassador and publisher Walter Annenberg. The record for U.S. higher education overall was a gift totaling $600 million to Caltech in 2001, with half of the money from Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, and the rest coming from their foundation.
USC officials, who planned to announce the $175-million donation and building project at a groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 4, released a 10-paragraph news release Tuesday afternoon in response to inquiries from The Times.
In the release, Lucas said, "I discovered my passion for film and making movies when I was a student at USC in the 1960s, and my experiences there shaped the rest of my career. I'm also an ardent advocate for education at all levels, and encouraging young people to pursue their ambitions by learning. I'm very fortunate to be in a position to combine my two passions and to be able to help USC continue molding the futures of the moviemakers of tomorrow."
Lucas, 62, began his college classes at Modesto Junior College but completed his studies at USC in 1966.
City officials said the new building would go up on the north side of the campus. It would be partly on a parking lot south of 34th Street near McClintock Avenue, but the project also would involve tearing down one or more campus buildings.
University spokesmen would not say how much of the $175 million already has been received, over how many years it will be given and what else the money would be used for besides the new complex and other film school renovations.
One subtle sign of change for the film school came in spring.
USC officials, in one behind-the-scenes move, altered the university's bylaws in April partly to change the school's name from the USC School of Cinema-Television to the School of Cinematic Arts. The switch dovetails with the institution's growing focus on new digital technologies.
The university tipped its hand further in recent days by sending groundbreaking ceremony invitations -- albeit ones that kept the donor's name secret -- to civic leaders, university officials and professors.
The invitation credits USC with "a long and proud history of inspiring and teaching the artists, scholars, and entrepreneurs who shape film, television and interactive media in the 20th century.
"This fall, we invite you to join us in carrying that tradition through the 21st century as we celebrate and break ground on our 137,000-square-foot state-of-the-art complex, made possible through the largest gift ever" to the university.
The Lucas donation is another in a series of fundraising coups for the university administration under President Steven B. Sample.
USC in 2003 wrapped up a 9 1/2 -year fundraising campaign that collected $2.85 billion in gifts and pledges -- the biggest ever for a U.S. university, until UCLA announced in February that it collected $3.05 billion in its 10 1/2 -year campaign.
Donations and pledges have continued to flow into USC in the last three years, totaling $4.2 billion since Sample arrived at USC in 1991.
Those gifts, in turn, have helped pay for initiatives that have substantially boosted USC's reputation in academic circles.
Since 1991, the university has moved up in the closely watched U.S. News & World Report magazine rankings for major universities. It has gone from 48th to tied for 27th with Tufts University and the University of North Carolina in the 2007 rankings released last month. UCLA, once well ahead of USC, was ranked just one notch higher in the latest poll, at 26th.
Lucas, chairman of San Francisco-based Lucasfilm Ltd. and also known for his Indiana Jones movies and the semiautobiographical "American Graffiti," has ample wealth to pay for his philanthropy.
On last year's Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, Lucas was tied for 61st, with an estimated net worth of $3.5 billion.
He was unavailable for comment late Tuesday but, in a separate morning ceremony, he gained another measure of renown: Lucas was named the grand marshal of the 2007 Rose Parade in Pasadena.
Lucas has long been involved with the film school, serving on its board of councilors, and two buildings on campus bear the Lucas family name.
The film school, established 67 years ago as a collaboration between USC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, long has been cited as one of the nation's best. In its most recent ranking of graduate film programs, U.S. News in 1997 rated USC tied with New York University for first place, with UCLA a close third. USC boasts that every year since 1973 at least one of its former students has been nominated for an Academy Award.
The new funds could give the film school another lift.
"There is no question that a gift in excess of $100 million is a transformational gift for an institution. It gives the university, and in this case the film school, wonderful opportunities to add a margin of excellence to the institution, to really distinguish it," said John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents fundraising officials at 3,200 schools.
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George Lucas' charitable foundation, Lucasfilm Foundation, will give USC the largest single donation in the university's history, officials announced Tuesday. Large donations to California colleges and universities:
*--* Donation Institution Donor (in millions) $600 Caltech Gordon and Betty Moore *
400 Stanford William & Flora Hewlett Foundation
240 UC San Francisco Larry L. Hillbloom
200 Stanford David & Lucile Packard Foundation
200 UCLA David Geffen
175 USC Lucasfilm Foundation
160 Pepperdine Blanche Ebert Seaver
150 Stanford James H. Clark
120 USC Walter Annenberg
110 UC San Diego Irwin & Joan Jacobs
110 USC W. M. Keck Foundation
*$300 million from the Moores personally and $300 million from their foundation
Source: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, Times reports