Why Disney will release the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy

hangreedoSince Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, a key question has been whether they’ll release the theatrical editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas has largely suppressed them since releasing the first special editions in 1997, embarrassed by their less-than-perfect special effects and insisting he would always have made the incongruous additions if technology and circumstance allowed.

So essential are these upgrades for him that he’s decreed older fans should never be allowed to see the versions they grew up with and younger ones shouldn’t be able to see a seminal part of cinema history. This is in stark contrast with his infamous 1988 speech to Congress declaring that permanently altering films was barbaric.

The issue has been personal for him, but fortunately Disney’s a soulless multinational corporation. If there’s money to be made, what do they care about a director’s pet grievances? Plus, Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy seems to think quite differently about the imperfect, lived-in aesthetic of the original trilogy.

We don’t know whether Disney is contractually able to release them, but some still believe they wouldn’t bother spending much on a niche concern even if they could. I think that view is wrong and fails to see the big picture.

But first, let’s look at the potential hurdles.

Who has the rights?

Fox has distribution rights to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi until 2020 and to A New Hope in perpetuity, but they can’t do anything new with them* without the owner of the films and their source material: Lucasfilm, and therefore Disney.

Disney could choose to wait until 2020 in order to share less of the bounty with Fox, but all three films in the new trilogy and several of the spin-offs will be out by then. Releasing new sets to tie into The Force Awakens and before DVD and Blu-ray fade completely will be more lucrative. The increased revenue may cancel out what they have to share on Empire and Jedi.

Besides, Disney will always have to team up with Fox on A New Hope unless they somehow buy them out as they did Paramount’s remaining Marvel distribution rights. They might as well work with them sooner for greater reward, and Fox has to play nice because there’s little value in only being able to release one Star Wars film.

Can George Lucas veto their release?

As a condition of sale, Lucas might have insisted that the theatrical editions never be re-released. It’s plausible but unlikely for several reasons.

In buying a company for $4 billion, it’s hard to believe Disney would agree to any conditions that hinder a return on such a massive investment, especially regarding one of that company’s central content pillars. Indeed, in April 2014 Disney CEO Alan Horn declared “we now are the primary drivers behind this property.”

And why wouldn’t they be? Lucas sold the company outright rather than just stepping down from running it, which suggests he’s happy to relinquish some and perhaps all control of Star Wars. After seven years producing only cartoons and merchandise, he decided to sell to a corporation that are not only going forward with the third trilogy he previously had no intention of making but are releasing one Star Wars film every year. Any preciousness surely had to evaporate before Lucas signed that contract.

But it was already starting to. Even when he was running Lucasfilm, he bowed to pressure and released the theatrical cuts in crappy non-anamorphic quality as bonus discs on a 2006 DVD re-release of the SEs. He didn’t care enough to present them well, but he could have done nothing.

When announcing the Blu-rays in 2010, he claimed that releasing ‘the classic version of things’ proved too expensive and difficult. This isn’t entirely true and may not be true at all depending on the condition of the negatives (see below), but at least he was no longer staunchly insisting that he knew best and the theatrical cuts should never be seen again. Maybe this was just a strategic shift to more diplomatically achieve the same end, but he went on to sell the entire company two years later. Was his protectiveness diminishing?

If he set any stipulation that Disney would agree to, it would be that his preferred editions always be in circulation. He may even have insisted that the theatricals only ever be presented as supplements. Disney would have happily agreed to that, because there’s not much more they’d want to do with them anyway. The SEs, for all their awkward faults, are polished movies with a more modern look for new audiences. Kids have grown up with these versions – to them, they’re Star Wars. Keeping them in circulation is prudent and fair.

Remastering the original versions vs the special editions

Strangely, it may be easier to bring the theatrical cuts to the latest and archival-friendly 4K standard than the special editions. It’s hard to pin down what resolution any of the SEs were mastered at – meaning the resolution of the final, digital version with CGI effects included – but reports all indicate something close to 2K, not 4K. Lucasfilm hasn’t publicly revealed their process. The same reports across the web also agree that not even the negative scanning was 4K, when even niche Criterion titles often get that treatment. The 1997 SEs may have been 2K and the 2004 editions as low as 1080p, but regardless, it wasn’t future-proofing the films or even doing the best by them for DVD and Blu-ray.

cloud-city-special-editionTo raise the SEs to 4K standard, the new effects Lucas cherishes would have to be re-rendered and live-action footage rescanned for composite shots. The films would essentially need to be rebuilt. How much work that would entail is unclear, but the theatrical cuts in their 35mm form could simply be scanned and polished at 4K standards from a good-quality print, unless Disney goes as far as reassembling the original, reportedly dismembered negative. (The condition of the negative has never been confirmed, with varying reports about how well it was preserved during the 1997 SE process.)

And hints have emerged that new 4K restorations do exist and have done since at least late 2012. A Reliance Mediaworks showreel presents markedly different colouring from the 2004 DVDs and the Blu-ray, but it has the 2004 SE compositing. One theory is that the 1997 SE negative has been scanned at 4K – explaining the different colour timing – perhaps reducing the effects work required to replicate the 2011 editions. The showreel could be misleading though and represent an earlier stage in the remastering process.

But is this a Disney project? A Reliance employee’s CV indicated last year that the work took place from September to December 2012, beginning shortly before the Disney deal was signed. Would Disney have funded a restoration before the deal was signed? Why would Lucasfilm initiate one when the Disney deal was being negotiated? Since the transfers remain unseen four years later, any Disney restoration may expand upon or reject Reliance’s work, which we still can’t be sure is the special editions rebuilt to one degree or another, the original editions restored, or both.

Complicating things further is Devin Faraci’s report earlier this year that a completed 4K remaster (not necessarily Reliance’s) features at least one reversion from the special edition – Han shooting first again – but not many more. Fixing only some SE changes misses the point entirely, and creates yet another, in-between version of the films. If the source is reliable, they may not have known or conveyed the full extent of the changes: that the originals have been restored in 4K. That’s the optimistic view, but the alternative is baffling.

Regardless, for the original versions to be available at all in respectable quality would more than satisfy most fans. Use an interpositive or even a 35mm print, whatever, just do a top-notch scan and get them out there. If Lucas had been happy to release them as archival cuts on a box set, the special editions would have been redundancies to fans and cinema history advocates rather than a slap in the face. Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, and other films have made their dubious earlier cuts available in box sets and their public image didn’t change. The preferred cuts were obvious and the primary ones distributed for more basic editions. In Blade Runner’s case in particular, the Director’s Cut and then the Final Cut have been more widely available and are still what most think of as Blade Runner, even after the divisive theatrical cut was made available again on disc in 2007. Why Lucas was so worried, why he thought his films were an exception, is mystifying. If he wants people to think of the SEs as the film, then distribution can ensure that happens even with the theatricals circulating.

If Disney goes further and puts some time, money, and expertise into restoring the theatrical cuts, everyone’s happy. A truly reverential restoration would be terrific, like that proposed by master restorer Robert A. Harris (The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia), who, according to Bill Hunt at The Digital Bits, insists the materials are available and the originals could be affordably restored. A theatrical re-release would be even better. But any decent HD presentation would quell most protests – Blade Runner’s theatrical cut is a solid 2K scan. Whether it’s a separate release or on bonus discs, as long as it’s out there and fans have a choice again, the matter should be largely settled.

Why Disney will care

Putting this issue to bed is why Disney will care about this. Goodwill is a powerful PR tool, and they want to make the most of their $4 billion investment. This is a case where corporate apathy is beneficial due to its democratising effect. If more options mean more money, Disney will provide more options.

Although the majority of Star Wars viewers – those who will make the new movies hugely successful – may not know or care about the SE controversy, Lucas’s actions have nonetheless soured the narrative around the original trilogy. Even casual viewers can be irritated by Lucas’s tone-deaf additions like a CGI dance number and inserting Hayden Christensen at the end of Jedi. When a documentary is out there called The People versus George Lucas, there’s a PR pest to swat.

Without Lucas standing in the way, Disney can wipe the slate clean with a single stroke, neutralising nearly two decades of hostility and resentment. They can position themselves as saviours to the fan community, film buffs, and Star Wars aficionados around the world. The prequels can’t be undone, but they’re being left behind anyway. By continuing the OT with the new films and setting at least one spinoff during the same period, the OT itself can’t be so easily neglected.

So it must be tempting to easily remove a major roadblock and get fans excited about the new films with a newfound trust in Disney’s respect for the property. Their emphatic public commitment to practical effects and sets in The Force Awakens demonstrates that this message is valuable to them. Surely the next step is bringing the OT back in the way so many prefer to experience it, and to a level of quality never before seen.

With the right PR strategy, they can even excite those who didn’t know they cared. In returning to the old versions, Disney ironically scores the only new promotional angle on the original trilogy that’s left. Enough time has passed that, to many, this is truly ‘Star Wars as you’ve never seen it’. As the gorgeous (and rare) Technicolor print demonstrates, even returning to the colour palette of the theatrical editions will make Star Wars look fresh and new**. By changing the original films in so many ways, Lucas has gifted Disney with a path back to a ‘brand-new’ version.

Will the new Lucasfilm go against George?

The key question isn’t whether Disney would do it, but whether Lucasfilm would or could stop it from happening. How involved is Lucas now? All we know is that he’s provided outlines for the new trilogy and is serving as a nebulous ‘consultant’, although he since revealed those outlines weren’t used.

If he’s completely separated from Lucasfilm, is it still the same company that reportedly ordered all prints of the theatrical editions to be destroyed if found and was only willing to give a copy of the special editions to the Library of Congress? Or, under Kathleen Kennedy, is the Lucasfilm that’s shooting The Force Awakens on 35mm with more practical sets and effects a less vehement entity that embraces its history?

rebelsIf it remains unchanged and Kennedy is utterly loyal to Lucas’s views, how much veto power does Lucasfilm have within Disney? They may enjoy some autonomy, but Disney surely has more control than Fox did as distributor. Again, they’re now the “primary drivers behind this property”. Otherwise, why buy Lucasfilm? To reap profits, sure, but they will want some control over how those profits are generated. They’ve already undone some of Lucasfilm’s in-progress Star Wars projects. The Clone Wars cartoon was cancelled and replaced with the OT-oriented Rebels, the 3D theatrical releases of the existing films was put on hold, and LucasArts was shut down, ending development of the vast 1313 game.

Kennedy may be an old friend of Lucas’s and selected to succeed him in order to protect his legacy, but this can be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that Lucasfilm only has so much control now. Kennedy is there not to exercise complete control, but to negotiate the most Lucas-friendly outcomes where appropriate. Lucasfilm now has obligations to its owner, not just its founder. But if she cancelled these ongoing projects herself, she’s demonstrating her willingness to overhaul how Star Wars is handled.

Whether Lucasfilm initiates a release of the theatrical cuts or just plays ball with Disney, the resulting shift in how Star Wars is perceived is worth more than just home media sales. The decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales or the typical costs allotted to ‘special features’ are irrelevant arguments. This is bigger than sales figures. While Disney no doubt wants a new way to sell these movies – without Lucas involved, there’s no reasonable latitude to make more SEs – the points they’ll score with fans, critics, and the media by removing the taint of Lucas’s control will have ripple effects across all their Star Wars revenue streams and it won’t even cost them much. Unless they’re prevented from ever re-releasing the theatrical cuts, you can bet they will.

It’s just a question of when, and Christmas 2015 makes the most sense. Disney’s D23 Expo is coming up in mid-August, where they increasingly make big announcements and debut footage. If there’s an announcement this year, that’s probably where it’ll be made, paving the way for an even more rapturous reception for The Force Awakens in December.

* Fox re-released the existing Blu-ray and DVD sets in October 2013, a year after the Disney sale. But without access to the source materials or presumably the capacity to create new extras, this is just keeping stock replenished and amounts to diminishing returns. And will Fox really want to help promote a rival’s film by re-releasing them again in late 2015 when they could likely make more from their cut of a joint box set offering new material?

** Just look at the first image of Vader choking the officer – it’s like a whole-new movie!

2 thoughts on “Why Disney will release the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy

    • remotewanderings says:

      Thanks Lucas! I truly hope they do. I’m not a massive Star Wars fan, but it’s still hard to watch the SEs. In many cases the decisions made are so, so foolish. To now watch the films as they were originally screened would feel like opening a time capsule.

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