Fabulous Flop: How Howard the Duck Changed Hollywood

August 5, 2013

George Lucas’ first big post-Star Wars project was an adaptation of a little-known comic book. Here’s the story of how Howard the Duck almost destroyed his career…
but led to the creation of a Hollywood goldmine.

In 1983, George Lucas released Return of the Jedi, the final movie in the Star Wars trilogy, one of the most financially successful and popular film series of all time. But how would he follow it up? In 1985, Lucas announced that he was producing a movie adaptation of the Marvel Comics cult comic book Howard the Duck.

Today, Marvel movies are hot Hollywood properties—this year’s Iron Man 3 and last year’s The Avengers are among the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time. But the very first Marvel property to be made into a movie was Howard the Duck. It was about a humanoid duck from outer space living on Earth, and he was crass, rude, and sexist. Lucas had been trying to get a movie of it made since the mid-’70s, but no studio was interested. After the success of Star Wars, Lucas could make whatever he wanted and Universal readily agreed to distribute Howard the Duck. They needed a big movie for the summer of 1986, and they were still smarting from passing on the Indiana Jones movies, which Lucas had produced and which were distributed by rival Paramount.

Lucas hired Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck to write the screenplay—the three had written American Graffiti together in the early ’70’s. Katz and Huyck thought that the subject matter—a talking duck—lent itself more to being an animated movie. Universal said no—they had contracted Lucas to make a live-action film, as cartoon movies were not as popular or profitable at the time.

The film was rushed into production, and came out on August 1, 1986. And it was…not as well received as Star Wars, to say the least. Fans of the comic book were disappointed that the movie had strayed from the source material. Howard was no longer mean and outspoken—he was wry and silly and made lots of terrible duck puns (“I know Quack Fu!”). Howard’s human girlfriend Beverly, a nude model in the comic, was remade into a rock musician. It was marketed as a family film, but in spite of toning down the comic book, it was still loaded with sexual innuendo. The lead character was a $2 million animatronic and puppeteer-controlled duck costume, whose lips barely moved, and yet they still don’t quite match the dialogue. In fact, voice actor Chip Zien recorded all of his dialogue after the movie had already been shot.

Howard the Duck cost $37 million to make, and earned just $16 million in the U.S. At the time, George Lucas was in debt, having spent $50 million to build his Skywalker Ranch film production facility in California. He believed that Howard the Duck would make so much money that it would make him solvent again. (It didn’t.) Lucas had to sell off some of his assets. He sold his just-launched computer-animation division to his friend, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer.

And that studio became Pixar, responsible for movies like Toy Story, Cars, and Monsters, Inc. Today Pixar movies are as sure a box-office bet as any adaptation of Marvel Comics which, because of the Howard the Duck debacle, wouldn’t authorize another movie adaptation until 2002’s Spider-Man. It’s also worth noting that as of 2013, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar are all the same company—they’re all owned by Disney.