By George! Defending Lucas (Part 2)

January 31, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

Here's a link to Part One, in which I discussed two of the three most common complaints about George Lucas. Part Two picks up with some comments about the third "sore spot."

Finally, there's the whole merchandising situation. In some circles, Lucas is viewed as an opportunistic and greedy bastard who will do anything and everything to bilk fans out of their hard-earned money. This is largely untrue. Most of the merchandise out there, be it action figures, videos, posters, etc., is the result of fan demand. When Star Wars debuted in 1977, there wasn't enough merchandise to satisfy fans, so companies went into overdrive, and it has been thus since. I had the sheets, the towels, the posters, the early fan magazines, the comic books, the novels, the trading cards, the records (including something called The Story of Star Wars, and eventually (when they became available some 10 months after the movie premiered) the action figures. I never stopped hoping for the photonovel that never came.

When it comes to the Lucas-as-a-greedy-bastard argument, most people focus on the videos. After all, those are the things people are "forced" to "constantly" re-purchase. The perception is that Lucasfilm releases a video with just enough bells & whistles to make it somewhat more desirable than the previous release, but holds something back so they can do it all again in a few years. Is this really what happens or, for the most part, it Lucas simply reacting to market demand and giving the fans what they want? Technology changes quickly; videos that were top-quality five years ago are barely watchable today. To keep Star Wars looking its best almost demands that it be re-released on a semi-regular basis.

I'm not going to attempt to examine every release in the 25+ years that the Star Wars movies have been available on home video. But I'll try to hit the high points and explain why, in most cases, new releases were justifiable. After all, if he really wanted to bilk fans out of their hard-earned dollars, there are a lot of ways he could have done it. How much would a pristine, anamorphic Blu-Ray copy of the unaltered trilogy fetch? Or a cleaned-up cut of The Star Wars Holiday Special? The unavailability of properties like this argues that, for Lucasfilm, the home video market isn't all about making as much money as possible.

The original Star Wars trilogy first became available on videotape around 1985. I'm not sure of the exact date, but by the time I got my first VCR (September 1985), it could be purchased for an outrageous $80 per film (the "pay to rent" cost). Price didn't deter me. In fact, the Star Wars movies were among the first titles in my then-fledgling movie library (alongside the far more reasonably priced first three Star Treks). Those were pan-and-scan copies that left a lot to be desired by today's standards. Of course, for fans in the mid-'80s, it was a miraculous development - having uncut Star Wars available at home. No one complained about the first "improvement", either. A late '80s letterboxed VHS release that finally provided the entire picture to fans. and was priced "to sell."

I think this was the last VHS release for about eight years. In the interim, I - like many tech-savvy fans - switched to laserdisc. Better audio and video. The initial laserdisc releases, which I never owned, were sad transfers of the pan-and-scan videotapes. They existed merely so that fans who wanted to watch the movies on this "better" format could do so, not because there was a noticeable increase in quality. Then, circa 1995 (could have been '94), Lucasfilm released a newly remastered version of the trilogy to both VHS and laserdisc. Most people know the story - between the mid-'80s and the mid-'90s, it was discovered that the original Star Wars film elements had so badly degraded that a painstaking restoration was necessary. In the process, Lucas gave the other two films, which were in significantly better condition, a similar treatment, creating pristine digital copies of all three. The mid-'90s home video release was the fruit of these efforts. It was known at this time that Lucas was planning a 1997 theatrical re-release of the films (for the 20th anniversary) with new special effects. In fact, part of the advertising campaign for the mid-'90s release was that it would be the "last time the trilogy would be available like this." Even this early, Lucas was planning to retire the original cuts; fans at the time either didn't listen, didn't care, or didn't believe him. There was no outcry; everyone was excited about the future - special editions in '97 and a new Star Wars movie in 1999. George Lucas was God. Probably for the last time.

The upgrade in picture quality and audio justified this release (it is, by the way, the one used for the lone DVD transfer). Even those who owned the earlier copies didn't complain. By mid-'90s standards, they were superior. In fact, for those who still have operating laserdisc players, they hold up nicely. As good as you can get without going HD. So far, so good. No gouging yet. Each release through the mid-'90s had a distinct purpose and reason for being.

The Special Editions were released in either late '97 or early '98, following successful limited theatrical runs. There was every reason for a fan to buy them, since they included all the tweaks and changes. The laserdisc box set was pricey, but I never felt cheated, but it was around this time that some fans were starting to become irritated about "constantly" having to re-buy Star Wars. However, which of the previous releases would they have given up? The initial letterbox version? The unaltered, remastered original trilogy? The Special Editions? Imagine the outcry if any of those had not been released. If Lucas had merely opened the Special Editions theatrically and not made them available for home viewing, fandom would have revolted.

By 1998, DVD was the rising home video force. As its footprint grew, one of the hottest "When will we see it?" properties was the original Star Wars trilogy. It made it after a long wait. Fans grumbled that they were only getting the Special Editions, but the transfers were crisp and bright. Then came what was, in my opinion, the only questionable release: the 2006 deluxe collector's edition DVD boxed set - the one that bundled the Special Editions with the non-anamorphic unaltered versions. True - it filled a fan need, but it was a slap in the face to those who had purchased the original DVD releases of the movies. Their argument of the affronted was justifiable - if Lucas was going to release non-anamorphic copies of the theatrical versions, why not do it on the first DVD release? This was perhaps the single least fan-friendly action on Lucas' part in 30 years of dealing with rabid obsessive/compulsive devotees. I'm sorry, but my defense does not stretch this far: the 2006 release was not a class move on the part of Lucasfilm and it generated a lot of ill will.

It's easy to speculate why the 2006 release occurred. When Lucasfilm first released the original trilogy (Special Editions) on DVD, they expected that to be it. Fan outcry against the omission of the theatrical releases was extreme. Lucas grudgingly relented, although minimal effort went into preparing the unaltered films for their DVD debut as "special features." (Truthfully, even on a medium sized TV with the zoom feature employed to create a pseudo-anamorphic picture, the DVD transfers still look good.) The apologist will state that Lucas was answering an upsurge of fan demand he never anticipated. The cynic will say that this was a blatant money-grab, an attempt to force die-hards who had already purchased the DVDs to buy them again. What would have been more fan-friendly? There are a lot of possibilities, but the least onerous might have been some kind of trade-in deal, whereby the earlier DVDs could be exchanged for a partial credit on the new ones. It didn't happen, though, and this proved to be one of Lucasfilm's biggest PR blunders.

The next, and most recent, iteration of home video Star Wars was the Blu-Ray release. There were a number of "flavors" of this. Those who wanted only the original trilogy (Special Edition versions) could purchase those movies. Those who wanted only the prequels could get them. And those who wanted all six could get a spiffy boxed set (complete with some nice extras and a ton of deleted scenes). Hard to argue with this upgrade.

Looking back at the history of Star Wars on home video, it's hard to find many instances of gouging. With the exception of the 2006 DVD release, there was a particular reason for each one - an attempt to provide a true upgrade rather than simply repackage something already available. In some ways, Star Wars is a victim of its longevity and the strength of its fan base. If the fans were less passionate or the movies were less popular, there would not have been as many releases. And Star Wars is not alone on the "multiple release gravy train." Star Trek II, for example, has been available in as many as six versions (VHS pan-and-scan, VHS letterbox, laserdisc, DVD standard, DVD 2-disc, BR). The Lord of the Rings, which has only been around for about a decade, already has four versions out: theatrical DVD, special edition DVD, theatrical BR, special edition BR. It is, by the way, more justifiable to claim gouging with The Lord of the Rings than with Star Wars. New Line capitalized on fans' unwillingness to wait; that was never the case with Lucas.

I do not believe any of these defenses will change anyone's mind, and they are not intended to. However, with so much anger out there directed at Lucas and his films, I wanted to argue the less popular side.

One final thought: I find it sad that a series of movies designed to entertain and bring joy has become what it is. Those who don't like Star Wars or who are offended by what it has become should simply move on. It's not sacred. "Fandom" was once a term applied to those who loved something to excess. Creators loved fans, although they sometimes found their devotion a little frightening. In the case of Star Wars, however, we have seen the Dark Side.