Star Wars: Why Disney Won’t Release the Original Theatrical Cuts

Why Star Wars fans still want the original theatrical cuts and why Disney hasn't released them yet...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It’s a strange time in the world of physical discs. Whilst companies such as Arrow and Criterion continue to invest time, money and care into beautiful, crafted, and collectable releases, there’s a growing feeling that the era of the physical disc is coming to an end. DVD and Blu-ray sales are falling, some titles by-pass disc altogether and go straight to streaming services. Furthermore, extra features are becoming less the norm and more a bit of a luxury. Then there’s the small matter of Ultra HD Blu-ray, a new disc format that’s making a little headway, but struggling to really breakthrough.

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Yet if there’s a release that would give the physical disc industry a real shot in the arm, it’s the original Star Wars cuts. Those long-cherished theatrical releases from the 1970s and 1980s, that have only been released once on DVD – and then in a fairly shabby state (a transfer from laserdisc materials, rather than film negatives) – and instead been usurped by the Greedo-endorsed special editions. Never have they seen 1080p, yet alone 4K.

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Even those special editions, of course, don’t stand still. Since George Lucas first unleashed his initial batch of alterations in the back end of the 1990s, there have been gradual further changes. The versions of Star Wars’ original trilogy that you can get on Blu-ray duly feature Hayden Christensen popping up at the end. Just to remind you of how coarse and irritating sand is, in case you’d forgotten.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm up in 2012, it unlocked the current generation of Star Wars films that we’ve been enjoying this past year or two, and took little time in doing so. Furthermore, there was hope that – with George Lucas now retired – the studio would release the original cuts of the films on Blu-ray. We don’t think we’re going out on a limb to suggest that these are the most widely-demanded catalogue Blu-ray titles left to release.

It’s little secret that George Lucas was always the stumbling block, viewing the special editions as the definitive cuts of his movies, and thus the ones he wanted out there. And, to be fair to him, he paid for them, he made them, they are his films (or at least were his films). That was always his right. Granted, he’s made comments about the state of the negatives of the original theatrical versions, and how it’d be too expensive to give them a full restoration. But nobody was buying it then, and nobody buys it now. Still, trashing George Lucas is a sport we don’t want to get involved with. After all the joys his film work has given us, he deserves more than that.

Back to the problem in hand, though. Nearly five years after that Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the original cuts of Star Wars on Blu-ray remain notable by their absence. There’s not even been an official murmur of them. Granted, there have been quality assembly cuts put together by fans online (in 720p resolution), the legality of which is roughly in line with what you’d expect. Yet as we approach the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, the hope was that a fresh disc (and theatrical) release – and possibly even an Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray release – would be on the cards.

One aside here, more a point of order than a big obstacle. As I understand it, 20th Century Fox still holds rights to the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. Back in the mid-1970s, Fox put up some of the funding for A New Hope, and co-produced the movie, thus getting rights as part of the deal. Lucasfilm wouldn’t have enough independence to take fuller control until The Empire Strikes Back (which it could fund, ironically, off the back of the merchandise revenue it got, when Fox let Lucas have the rights to that as part of the original Star Wars deal).

As such, while Disney owns rights to every other Star Wars movie as part of its Lucasfilm deal, Fox continues to have its stake in A New Hope. Disney and Fox have come together on boxsets before, though. Disney had the UK rights to Die Hard With A Vengeance, for instance, whereas the other three Die Hard films, and the John McClane cosplay movie A Good Day To Die Hard, are Fox-owned. That didn’t stop a boxset being cobbled together. Fox would certainly be up for a deal, so that’s not a major stumbling block.

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But other stumbling blocks there clearly are.

Last year, though, it seemed like there was progress. For Rogue One director Gareth Edwards revealed that a new 4K scan of Star Wars: A New Hope had been put together. It’s believed, contrary to initial hopes, that said scan was for the special edition, not the original cut. What’s more, The Digital Bits is reporting it’s the latest special edition that Disney has prepared.

But The Digital Bits (an excellent site, that we heartily recommend) also has some interesting further info, too. It reports comments from Disney’s director of Library Restoration and Preservation, Theo Gluck, who recently said that the original Star Wars negative exists in its special edition state only. Promisingly, it was subsequently confirmed that all the cuts made to the original negative still exist, and weren’t binned. Not a surprise, perhaps, but it goes a little against the narrative that’s wheeled out whenever the original cuts conversation seems to come up.

Thus, it seems that time and money is part of what’s stopping that original cut of the 1977 movie being put together. Money is more resolvable than time, we’d argue, given the expected interest in an original cuts release. Perhaps more pertinently though, there’s a lack of a greenlight. We can’t help but wonder if George Lucas still has involvement there somewhere. Maybe it’s in the contract of sale from Lucasfilm to Disney? That something was stipulated? That last bit is speculation on our part.

Practically, what does seem clear is that an assembly of the original Star Wars cut for a full re-release hasn’t taken place even behind the scenes as of yet, which leaves us for the minute pretty much where we were. That virtually nixes any chance a 40th anniversary re-release for anything but the special editions. Even if Lucasfilm and Disney got hold of one of the other prints of the original theatrical Star Wars versions tomorrow (and many are said to be available around the world), they’d struggle to turn around a trilogy boxset for Christmas.

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Which leaves the question as to what Disney’s plan for the 4K scan it has actually is? It may, in theory, have done it for archiving purposes, but more likely, there’s some form of re-release, or special screening, on the horizon. There are finally murmurings that Disney may support Ultra 4K HD Blu-ray this year, and might that be the title to announce its entry into the market there? A long shot, but possible.

Let’s end with those original cuts, though. The home formats industry has proven, through its remastering of films in some cases nearly 100 years old, that battered old negatives and poor source materials are no barrier to a release. Really good releases, too. There’s little doubt that it’s entirely possible that Disney could, in technical theory, put together a high definition master of the Star Wars original cuts. The fact that the studio isn’t doing so in time for the 40th anniversary, as opportune a moment as it’s likely to get, suggests that what’s missing right now is the will. Perhaps the permission. But someone, somewhere is holding this back.

When asked if she’d consider releasing the original theatrical cuts in the near future, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said simply, “I wouldn’t touch those! Are you kidding? Those will always remain [George Lucas’].”

That’s about as direct an answer as we’re probably going to get.