The Big Dipper

May 18, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

There are three kinds of Star Wars fans:
(1) The obsessive die-hards. Those who have devoted a large portion of their lives and creative energies to the films, and for whom it has attained a nearly religious status.
(2) The more-than-casual fans. Those whose appreciation for the SW phenomena goes beyond the movies. They may read the books, watch the films frequently, and write articles like this one, but they don't do it to extremes.
(3) The casual fans. They enjoy the films to a greater degree than the general public, but that's about all.

Now, Consider these two statements:
(1) George Lucas is genuinely unhappy with the original versions of his first Star Wars trilogy. (By "original," I'm referring to the movies that were in theaters in 1977, 1980, and 1983.) He has even gone so far as to call them "work prints." So, in his view, they are inferior and unfinished.
(2) George Lucas likes making money. I don't think anyone is going to disagree with me about this point.

What we have/don't have with the latest announced (September 12, 2006) DVD version of the original Star Wars trilogy is impacted by both of those statements. When Lucas decided to release the original movies on DVD a couple of years ago, he went with what he felt to be the best versions of the films currently available - the Special Editions, with a few tweaks. How did the fans react?

This gets back to my categorization of SW fans. Those in the rabid, die-hard category were conflicted. Most were glad to have SW on DVD, but a lot were miffed that they hadn't been given both the original theatrical editions and the Special Editions. For fans in category two (more-than-casual), probably 80% were fine with what they got. And it's hard to imagine anyone in category three (casual) voicing a complaint. The SW trilogy sold very well indeed. There were disgruntled fans, but they represented a minority. Yet they made a lot of noise, and Lucas heard them. He saw an opportunity to make a little more money and do a little double-dipping. So he announced that there will be limited editions of the SW movies with the theatrical versions of the films presented as "bonus features." The audio will be 2.0 stereo and the video will be non-anamorphic widescreen.

Why non-anamorphic? There are two possibilities. Either no clean copies of the original films exist (We know the negatives are toast, and all of the theatrical prints were recalled and destroyed, but what about the original inter-positives?) or Lucas is being cheap. Take your pick. From a consumer's standpoint, it doesn't matter. Non-die hards who buy the new sets will see the theatrical versions as Lucas intends them to - as bonus features: nice add-ons to supplement the movies. Die hards will complain because they're not getting a pristine treatment. But if you consider how Lucas views these versions, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that he isn't pulling out all the stops. Those who want them should be thankful they're being made available at all.

Some people are convinced that Lucas plans a 30th anniversary deluxe boxed set of the SW trilogy. I agree. Many of those same people believe that, as part of this boxed set, he will release the original prints in anamorphic widescreen. I don't agree. Believing that Lucas will spend any time - even the little required to do a digital clean-up and/or re-formatting - is unrealistic. For him (although not for some fans), these are relics, better buried and forgotten. They aren't the real Star Wars. So he won't touch the theatrical versions. They may be included as part of the boxed set for completeness' value, but they'll be the same non-anamorphic versions that will be available this year. The differences will be done to the "living" Special Editions that Lucas will likely tweak again.

All of this background is tangential to my point: that Lucas is again double-dipping. He's asking consumers to spend more money for different versions of movies they have already bought. To be sure, Lucas isn't the only one who does this. Star Trek fans have been subjected to it, as have Lord of the Rings aficionadaos. There are tons of movies that are first released as standard editions only to be followed at a later date by something expanded. Those who love the films typically buy both. But no group of fans has been subjected to more double dipping than SW fans: VHS, VHS widescreen, laserdisc, laserdisc widescreen, laserdisc limited editions ("last time" to buy the theatrical versions), laserdisc Special Editions, DVD Special Editions, DVD limited editions. It's dizzying. By mid-September 2006, some SW fans will own eight versions of each movie.

The knee-jerk reaction is to rail against George Lucas for his greed and disregard for the fans. To me, this is an oversimplification of the situation. I think Lucas listens to the fans. Every version of the SW movies has offered something different - often, something fans have asked for. But Lucas expects people to pay for these new features. In a capitalist society, what's wrong with that? These are his babies, and he's entitled to milk them for all they're worth. I don't like it because it costs me money, but calling Lucas names doesn't solve anything. And how about asking yourself this question: In Lucas' position, wouldn't you do the same thing? Maybe one in ten who answers "no" to this question is being honest. The politically correct response is: "No. I would have more respect for the movies and for the fans who have supported them, and me, for nearly 30 years." The realistic response, and the one I would probably give, is: "Yes." Lucas isn't a philanthropist. He's a businessman.

Double dipping is a common enough practice, and it's easier to justify in some cases than in others. The Kill Bill situation, which involved splitting a movie into two pieces to double the box office receipts and subsequent DVD sales, is about as bad as it gets. (Oddly, plans for more double dipping with Kill Bill special editions, never materialized. As I understand it, this is in part becuase the film was not as successful as had been hoped and in part because the break-up of Miramax caused too much fallout.) Unaware that two-disc special editions were in the works, Star Trek fans shelled out dollars for the movie-only DVDs of the films. Less crass was the way New Line handled the Lord of the Rings films. They double dipped, but there were significant differences between the movie-only and special edition versions, and consumers knew ahead of time what they were in for. (I like having both versions in my DVD library, because they are different experiences.)

So we can be as mad as we want at George Lucas for double dipping (or should that be "octuple dipping"), but as long as we keep buying his products, he'll keep doing it. It's the law of supply and demand. He's giving us something; we're paying for it. We are not being robbed or coerced. We do this of our own free will, grumbling as we write the check. Double dipping may be annoying, but it's not criminal or unethical. Everyone has the right to draw a line in the sand and not cross it. If you want the non-anamorphically enhanced widescreen theatrical versions of the SW films, pay the money for the new limited editions. If it's not a big deal, give them a pass. It's your dollar. Decide how you want to spend it.