AFI Board of Trustees Chairman Sir Howard Stringer announced the selection, calling Lucas a pioneer.
"George Lucas is a master storyteller, but he is first and foremost a moving image pioneer," said Stringer. "He has advanced the art of the moving image like few others, and in the process has inspired a new generation of filmmakers around the world."
AFI Director and Chief Executive Officer Jean Picker Firstenberg told United Press International the trustees regarded Lucas as a filmmaker of "profound influence" not just on other filmmakers, but on audiences as well.
"It was really all about how he had brought an imagination to the screen that was similar to the storytelling for the ages -- whether it was Dickens or Tolkien -- in effect, our modern mythmaker," said Firstenberg.
Lucas -- the creator of the "Star Wars" film series -- joins a list of AFI Life Achievement Award winners that includes many of Hollywood's most legendary figures.
"I've been very fortunate to have had a long career doing what I love to do, and being recognized by the AFI for it is really an honor," Lucas said. "I'm proud to be counted among such an extraordinary group of people whose lives are dedicated to the art of making movies."
Directors John Ford, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Huston, Billy Wilder, David Lean, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Robert Wise have been given the AFI award.
The honor has also been given to actors James Cagney, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Lillian Gish, Gene Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep.
Although most of the directors and some of the actors have also functioned as producers, Lucas is the first AFI honoree whose main contribution to film has been as a producer.
"It's an interesting combination that someone who could probably be used as the definition of a producer in its fullest, broadest sense has influenced the art of storytelling so profoundly," said Firstenberg. "That's why he's unique."
To be sure, Lucas has made his mark as a director -- with such credits as "American Graffiti" and three of the five "Star Wars" movies, as well as the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," scheduled for a May 19 release.
But it was as a producer -- of "Star Wars," as well as of the "Indiana Jones" movies and other features such as "Willow" and "The Land Before Time" -- that Lucas wielded his greatest influence on the art, and the business, of film.
Born and reared in Modesto, Calif., George Lucas began to attract attention as a filmmaker while still a student at the University of Southern California. His short film "Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB" won the top award at the National Student Film Festival.
In 1971, with his long-time friend Francis Ford Coppola as executive producer, Lucas turned the project into his first feature, "THX 1138."
With the 1973 release of "American Graffiti," Lucas joined the ranks of successful Hollywood directors, but it was his 1977 sci-fi epic "Star Wars" that established him as a world-class filmmaker and rewrote the rulebook on marketing Hollywood blockbusters. A byproduct of Lucas' dissatisfaction with the state of visual-effects technology at the time was his creation of Industrial Light & Magic, an effects company that raised the bar on visual effects.
Lucas turned over the direction of the next two "Star Wars" movies to Irvin Kershner ("The Empire Strikes Back") and Richard Marquand ("Return of the Jedi"). He collaborated with Spielberg to create the "Indiana Jones" series.
"Star Wars" is the No. 2 all-time U.S. box-office champion, with $461 million. The five "Star Wars" movies to date have grossed a combined $1.8 billion at the U.S. box office.
Lucas has also had striking success in TV, as the creator of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which won 12 Emmy Awards.
Lucas' influence has spread beyond film and TV and the attendant merchandising that accompanies movie blockbusters. He also helped create Disney theme-park attractions -- including "Star Tours" -- and the computer graphic research division of his production company, LucasFilm, was spun off in 1986 and became Pixar Animation Studios.
His audio enterprise, Skywalker Sound, has pioneered new technologies in sound recording and editing for film, and LucasFilm has been an innovator in video editing with non-linear editing systems that have formed the basis for the standard editing platforms used throughout film and TV today.
The LucasFilm division LucasArts is a leading player in the home computer and console-based entertainment field.
Firstenberg said Lucas' advocacy for digital production has made him even more influential than he already was as a classic storyteller.
"He is an evangelist if you will, and he's ahead of everybody in terms of saying, 'This is a great tool to tell your story with -- don't ignore it,'" she said. "I think in that way he has, in effect, a 'double whammy' impact."
The award will be presented to Lucas at a gala tribute in Los Angeles in June 2005 during ceremonies to be taped for a later telecast over the USA Network. The presentation will come just weeks after the scheduled May 19 release of what Lucas has said will be the last of his "Star Wars" movies, "Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith."
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