Before Star Wars, George Lucas Made This $140M Teen Gem (and It's Now on Netflix)

Before Star Wars, George Lucas Made This $140M Teen Gem (and It's Now on Netflix)
Image credit: Legion-Media

A box office hit starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. What's not to love?


  • Released in 1973, this is a classic US coming-of-age comedy-drama.
  • It scores 95% on the Tomatometer.
  • It's a must-see for George Lucas fans.

George Lucas became a household name with the release of Star Wars in 1977. Everything about this sci-fi epic was groundbreaking, and it's still hard to believe that it was only Lucas' third feature film. But it wasn't the first time he'd been involved in the creation of a cinematic masterpiece.

Throughout the '60s, Lucan directed 9 short films, and made his feature-length debut in 1971 with the dystopian sci-fi THX 1138. His next movie, released just two years later, has become a cult classic – even if it lives in the shadow of Star Wars.

Imagine Grease, but it's good

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford, American Graffiti looks a lot like the hit musical Grease.

But where John Travolta et al. explore teenage life through the medium of a musical, George Lucas' film has a more genuinely nostalgic take on this formative part of life.

In 1962, a group of teenagers face their days of freedom before the realities of life outside their comfortable hometown set in. There's love, lust, drive-ins, diners, rock 'n' roll, teenage hijinks and car races. But these guys aren't dancing around on their hot rods.

Like I said, it's Grease, but good.

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It was the third highest grossing movie of 1973

In terms of box office success, three films stood out in 1973. At the top of the list was The Exorcist, which grossed $441.3 million. Next came The Sting with an impressive $257 million, ahead of American Graffiti which took in $140 million. Fourth on the list was Papillon, which grossed only $53.2 million.

But these headline numbers don't tell the whole story. When you look at the return on investment, American Graffiti comes out on top. It cost only $777,000 to produce, and the $140 million it made was 181.1 times that amount.

With a budget of $12 million, The Exorcist made 12 times its cost, and The Sting made just over 5 times its production budget.

What makes it so good?

In retrospect, it seems strange to ask what was so good about a movie written by George Lucas and starring Harrison Ford. But at the time, no one really knew who either of them were.

But it's still clear to see what made fans love the movie. First of all, it was relatable to its target audience who had been or were going through that stage of life. Second, it had all the nostalgia you would expect from this kind of flick. It is quintessentially American and allows viewers to escape into a world that epitomizes the American dream: despite the challenges they face throughout the film, nothing is impossible for the characters. Even if they can't see it, we can.

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Add to that a cast with great chemistry, great writing, and Lucas' decision to use Techniscope cameras for added authenticity, and you have a masterpiece.

The music was also crucial. Where Grease goes full musical and takes the audience on a journey that requires suspension of disbelief, American Graffiti draws you in with diegetic music. As viewers, we hear the same music as the characters on the screen. We are transported into their world and experience what they are going through in a real sense.

All in all, the film is engaging, funny and bittersweet. It takes everything about the end of an era and puts it in a neat little box that can be opened whenever you feel that pang of nostalgia.

And now it's on Netflix.

Where else can I watch it?

If you don't have a Netflix subscription, American Graffiti is available to rent or buy on:

  • Prime
  • Apple TV
  • Google Play
  • YouTube
  • Vudu
  • Sky Store (UK only)