Jiri Hanzl
January 23, 2012 at 10:41 PM EST

George Lucas must have the deepest pockets of any independent filmmaker on the planet. He self-financed Red Tails — the epic passion project about the Tuskegee Airmen he’s been fighting to bring to the big screen for 23 years — with close to $100 million of his personal fortune. Today he’s got to be smiling, though, because it looks like his investment has a shot at paying off.

It’ll be an uphill battle, but Red Tails soared in its opening weekend with $19.1 million, well beyond what distributor 20th Century Fox anticipated. That beats the openings of previous aerial adventure films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($15.6 million), Stealth ($13.3 million), and Flyboys ($6 million). Next week it’ll have to compete against Liam Neeson battling wolves in The Grey, but Red Tails’ 43% Friday-to-Saturday jump, robust $7,604 per-screen average, and solid “A” CinemaScore, despite mixed critical reviews, bodes well for its future financial prospects. If it performs anything like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which also opened with a little over $19 million during the extended Christmas weekend, Lucas might just break even. With Black History Month just around the corner, continued interest in the story of the first African-American fighter pilot squad is very likely.

This success is hard won for Lucas and Red Tails director Anthony Hemingway. After the African-American-driven World War II film Miracle at St. Anna tanked at the box office with a cumulative $7.9 million domestic gross (and a $45 million production budget) in 2008, Hollywood became especially wary of financing expensive war movies built around largely unknown black actors. Even with Lucas’ support, no studio was willing to finance Red Tails. So he ponied up the $58 million production budget and $35 million distribution costs (plus an additional amount for marketing) himself.

“The thing is, a predominantly white story centered around the Second World War would not have the pressure on it that Miracle at St. Anna had,” Red Tails star David Oyelowo tells EW. “Or that Red Tails now has. When Miracle at St. Anna wasn’t a huge success, it became a signal to the studios that, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work.’ But if Black Hawk Down hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have meant that Clint Eastwood’s war movies weren’t going to get made.”

If Red Tails had relied on studio financing, odds are the film would have needed a bigger marquee name attached, like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or Will Smith. But like he did with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas opted for a younger cast built around up-and-comers like Oyelowo (The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Leslie Odom (Smash), and Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights), with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the only Hollywood veterans on hand. “If this had been studio financed,” Oyelowo says, “These actors would have been older because they would have needed established names. And, let’s face it, African-American actors very rarely get to be established names until they are in their 40s or beyond.”

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