Star Wars original cuts on Blu-ray: the evidence

Feature Ryan Lambie 19 Aug 2014 - 06:22

Rumours suggest that original cuts of Star Wars are heading to Blu-ray. But how likely is that? Ryan weighs up the possibilities...

For many Star Wars fanatics, the special edition release of the Original Trilogy back in 1997 was a bittersweet moment. On one hand, it offered us the chance to see George Lucas's space opera films in their natural habitat: on a huge cinema screen.

Then there's the restoration to consider: Lucasfilm took the original Star Wars negatives from its archives and cleaned them up, removing years of dirt and scratches, and restoring the colours to their original balance. Thanks to the efforts of people like effects supervisor Dave Carson and his team, Darth Vader's outfit was once again black and imposing, not an embarrassing shade of faded blue.

During this process, however, George Lucas decided to make a number of small yet significant alterations: the insertion of new effects shots, an entire song-and-dance sequence in Return Of The Jedi, and, most infamously, a change to Han's fateful meeting with Greedo in A New Hope. Further alterations were made when the Original Trilogy made its way to DVD and then Blu-ray, which quickly led to a persistent question among Star Wars fans: when might we see a release of restored yet otherwise unmodified versions of the original films?

For George Lucas, there was one simple answer: never. Back in 2004, Lucas told The Today Show, "I'm not going to spend the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn't really exist anymore. It's like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I'm sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it."

Fans, it seemed, would have to make do with the bonus feature on the DVDs released in 2006: some decidedly threadbare original cuts taken from an old Laserdisc edition released in 1993. Otherwise, there are the various fan-made 'de-specialised' edits to be found on the internet. For the past eight years, the chances of seeing an official, high-quality, remastered edition of the Star Wars Original Trilogy have grown increasingly slim.

But over the past few days, rumours have begun to circulate that, with George Lucas now in retirement and Lucasfilm in the hands of Disney, the original theatrical cuts of Star Wars could be appearing on Blu-ray after all. It's a story that has generated no small amount of excitement, but understandably, quite a bit of scepticism.

So putting everything we currently know together, what are the chances of the original cuts finally appearing on disc? Consider the following:

George Lucas

Since the late 90s, one of the major barriers between a release of an original cut of Star Wars and its audience was, predictably, Lucas himself. The 2006 DVD release of the Original Trilogy, with those immensely disappointing, non-anamorphic versions of the theatrical edits, appeared to be the result of a compromise between what fans were clamouring for and what Lucas himself wanted in circulation.

The tension between the two is all there in a statement issued by Lucasfilm in the year of that edition's release:

"As you may know, an enormous amount of effort was put into digitally restoring the negatives for the Special Editions...The negatives of the movies were permanently altered for the creation of the Special Editions, and existing prints of the first versions are in poor condition. So many fans have requested the original movies, we wanted to find a way to bring them to you. But since these movies do not represent George's artistic vision, we could not put the extraordinary time and resources into this project as we did with the Special Editions. The 1993 Laserdisc masters represented the best source for providing the original versions as DVD bonus material."

That's about as close to a, "sorry, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances" message we're likely to get from a major company like Lucasfilm. But with Lucasfilm under the ownership of Disney as of 2012, and Kathleen Kennedy now its president rather than Lucas himself, it seems far more likely that Lucasfilm will change its stance over the Original Trilogy. After all, Lucas was once quite emphatic that 2005's Revenge Of The Sith would be the last film released under the Star Wars banner, which is clearly no longer the case.

20th Century Fox

This is where things become somewhat complicated, and one of the chief stumbling blocks in any possible Blu-ray release. While Disney now owns Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to make any Star Wars sequel, spin-off, theme park ride or piece of merchandise it likes, the distribution rights to the original Star Wars trilogy still reside with 20th Century Fox.

Fox permanently owns the rights to 1977's Star Wars, and will retain the distribution rights for the five preceding films until May 2020. This might suggest that the rumours surrounding the unmodified theatrical cuts is mere wishful thinking. But then again, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Disney and Fox have quietly struck some kind of deal; as Hit Fix pointed out a couple of years ago, studios have come to mutually-beneficial agreements for home releases before, such as an Alfred Hitchcock box set released by Universal, which contained films belonging to Paramount and MGM.

If Disney went to Fox with a satisfactory deal to split the profits of an Original Trilogy Blu-ray release, then both companies would surely benefit from it.

Reliance Media Works

When George Lucas argued against an unaltered restoration of Star Wars in 2004, he said that he wasn't willing to "spend the [...] millions of dollars" on the process of making it. Two years later, Lucasfilm stated  that the "negatives of the movies were permanently altered for the creation of the Special Editions."

Taken at face value, this might suggest that a HD theatrical cut of Star Wars would not only be commercially unviable, but also technically difficult. Yet according to an Ars Technica article published in May this year, such a restoration would not only be possible, but also relatively cheap to produce. Star Wars expert Michael Kaminski suggests that a new, 4K scan of the trilogy would "likely be under a million dollars" - hardly a huge sum of money for a Hollywood studio.

What's more, it emerged in July that a company called Reliance Media Works had created a 4k 16-bit remaster of the original Star Wars trilogy. Reliance's demo reel even shows off its work on Star Wars:

While we don't yet know whether Reliance's conversion was based on the original theatrical cuts or the Special Edition, it seems highly likely that some kind of high-resolution release is being prepared.  

Disney

In 2009, a video of the Muppets performing a rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody appeared on YouTube. It was a viral hit, and garnered millions of views within a matter of days. This was, of course, a considerable period of time before the release of The Muppets movie in 2011. Years before the official marketing for James Bobin's reboot had kicked in, Disney was preparing the way, with the humour in the Bohemian Rhapsody video giving audiences a taste of what was to come.

Last October, Lucasfilm shared the 1976 Star Wars teaser trailer on its YouTube channel. Here, warts-and-all, was a reminder of how Fox marketed the film while it was still in production: no John Williams fanfare, and no proper Star Wars title font. The similarly nostalgic teasers for The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi were released a few days later.

We can only speculate about why Lucasfilm chose to share those trailers, but it seems logical that it was following the example set by Disney and its promotion of The Muppets. Based on the officially-released images and casting we've seen from the set of Star Wars: Episode VII, it seems that JJ Abrams is making a movie closer in spirit to the Original Trilogy, with its practical creature effects and physical sets, rather than the largely digital prequels - and the release of those 70s and 80s teaser trailers could be an attempt to underline that design choice.

Or maybe - just maybe - it had an additional objective: to test the waters for a release of the Star Wars theatrical cuts, perhaps to coincide with the 40th anniversary in 2017. Such a move depends on behind-the-scenes deals and no small amount of restoration work, but we know that a 4K conversion of the Original Trilogy has already taken place. If that restoration work also entailed the reinstatement of the scenes replaced at Lucas' behest in 1997 and afterwards, then Star Wars fans may finally get the release they've been clamouring for.  

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