Why Disney Can't Release the Original Star Wars Trilogy

As much as you may want the untampered original trilogy, due to legal decisions from the 1970s Disney are powerless to release it.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars A New Hope

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is going to get a lot of people revisiting the original Star Wars. Gareth Edwards war/heist movie is a dramatization of the opening crawl from A New Hope, featuring a group of daring Rebels who set out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, and everything from an aesthetic standpoint has been designed to evoke Episode IV's used-future style. Locations like Yavin IV are revisited, new ships fit right alongside X-Wings and, best of all, every effort's being made to use traditional special effects.

With Rogue One bringing things back to where Star Wars began, there are no plans for a sequel because Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope essentially is the sequel. This return to the series' roots will no doubt reignite demands for a re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy, as it was before George Lucas went back in and meddled with it, adding new CGI aliens, a Hayden Christensen force ghost, and other controversial changes.

Given the popular demand for the theatrical editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, it might seem like a no-brainer for a massive studio like Disney to cobble together a new box set. Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated.

The Special Edition Problem

Star Wars Jabba the Hutt Han Solo Special Edition

Let's back up a little. In 1997, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the first film and get people hyped for the prequels, Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in cinemas, but with a few CGI “improvements.” Some of these had a very positive impact - cleaning up matte lines, bluescreen flubs and other issues with the early pioneering effects work - but the more noticeable changes are the reinserted scenes that do nothing to help the pacing, and CGI models that have dated faster than the practical effects they replaced. Star Wars fandom may be split on the kid-focused prequels or The Force Awakens’ repeating plot, but everyone can agree that the Special Editions are awful.

Regardless of the backlash, the updates worked very well financially, so each new release on DVD or Blu-Ray has seen even more changes, much to fans’ ire; Hayden Christensen was inserted into Return of the Jedi’s ending in place of grown-up Anakin in 2004, and by the 2011 Blu-Ray additions were being made seemingly for the sake of it, like a new rock in front of R2-D2 while hiding from the Tusken Raiders and Ewoks blinking (alterations were also made to the prequels, but nobody seems to care about those). It would be exaggerating to say these changes flat-out ruin the films or make them unwatchable – at their heart they’re still the archetypal modern myths – but every alteration pulls you out of the action. There’s a grit and charm to the untampered movies that dated CGI sheen just can’t fit with.

The problem isn’t just that the changes are ruinous or it’s a triple-dip release strategy though. In addition to meddling with the films, Lucas has successfully suppressed the untampered versions the world fell in love with; in his mind they’re not the finished versions, so he flat-out refused to make them available, to the point where he didn’t even submit the 1977 version of Star Wars when it was nominated for inclusion in the National Film Registry. The last time the proper versions of the films were available was in 2006 as a bonus feature on a limited edition DVD re-release, and those were a crummy laserdisc rip with the wrong aspect ratio. Aside from that, you need to go back over twenty years to find an official copy.

That’s a pain for those wanting to revisit the films they fell in love with, and even worse for the entire generation of fans that’s had to grow up unable to even see the classics as originally intended.

Why Disney Can't Fix It

Star Wars George Lucas Mickey Mouse

Now, surely this is where Disney should step in and save the day. The company has been excellent in pleasing the fans since the acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, and this would be the absolute holy grail. Many expected Disney to release the proper versions before The Force Awakens hit, but now all eyes are on a super-duper bumper box-set when the new trilogy’s wrapped up.

Unfortunately, not only is that not going to happen in 2020 following Episode IX’s release, it’s unlikely to ever happen at all. You see, Disney’s Lucasfilm purchase wasn't as simple as them getting access to the whole galaxy. While they got the rights to make future movies, merchandising and so many related trademarks it’s like lawyer Christmas, there's one important piece of Star Wars they don't own yet: the actual movies.

To explain why, we have to go back to the very start of the franchise. When negotiating his fee for Star Wars, George Lucas - who was a hot new talent following the success of American Graffiti (which bagged him a Best Director nod) - chose to waive a standard directing fee in favour of the merchandising rights and sequel options for his film. In the 1970s this looked like a plum deal for Fox: tie-in toys weren't the juggernaut industry they are now and sequels invariably followed the law of diminishing returns, so this was basically them trading at a much lower rate. It’s unclear if Lucas really knew the extent of his savvy, but it meant he was in complete control of the franchise after the film's smash hit, able to capitalize on it without any outside influence. In the long term, he financed everything himself through Lucasfilm, making Episodes V, VI, I, II and III technically some of the most expensive independent films ever made.

Star Wars Emperor

However, Fox still distributed all six original movies, and that means that they got the worldwide theatrical, non-theatrical, and home video distribution rights to all versions of Episodes I through VI, and under current law will own those they acted solely as distributor on until 2020. The exact specifics of the relationship between companies is unclear - last year’s digital release of the saga (which used the Blu-Ray version) ditched the Fox logo, yet presumably the profits went to them - but the basics are that before that date, Disney is powerless when it comes to re-releases (of either the original versions or Special Editions).

If you’re thinking that’s fine and we can wait a few more years until getting the original originals, there’s a much bigger problem. Although the sequels and prequels were done under Lucas’ new deal, that isn't true of the first film. Fox didn’t just distribute the original Star Wars, but co-produced and co-financed it, and so they own the rights to it in perpetuity: basically, they have it forever. If Disney ever wants to release a complete Star Wars box-set, they’ll not only have to wait until 2020 to get the first five follow-ups, but they'll then have fork out a tonne of cash to get the original in what would probably be the biggest single film deal in cinema history.

This, of course, assumes that Disney would even be interested in releasing the untampered films at all. They’ve done similar things in the past with the likes of The Lion King, meddling with the film post-release and making the original previous version unavailable, so it’s very possible they don’t care too much about these fan moanings. Besides, the legal complications of a purchase or some other deal with Fox could, in the face of a franchise that is doing absolutely barnstorming returns from merchandising and sequels, make it something not worth the agro; because of the profitability of the very things Lucas negotiated for in 1977 that first created this issue, Disney may not want to bother.


Star Wars Force Ghosts

So, in a nutshell, Disney own every bit of Star Wars expect for Star Wars, and the 1977 film itself may not even factor into their long-term plans for the franchise enough for that oversight to be an issue for them. While it's not inconceivable that we'll eventually get a re-release of the un-specialised trilogy (for the longest time an Episode VII was an impossibility), don't bet on it happening anytime soon.

It's a tough pill to swallow and brings to mind Obi-Wan's rant from the end of Revenge of the Sith, but, looking forward, where does this leave fans? For those desperate for chimp-eye Palpatine and vaseline smudge landspeeders, not in the best of places really. There’s several great fan-led attempts at retroactively constructing the original cuts, using technology unfathomable in 1977 to recreate those great movies, that are definitely an option, but it's a far cry from an official release. For now we're just going have to settle for CGI'd up Episodes IV-VI and hope the future holds movies that evoke the classic Star Wars feel. And, based on Rogue One, that's not going to be too bad a compromise.

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