A long time ago (well, almost 20 years) in theaters not so far away, an eccentric little cliffhanger forever changed the way Hollywood regarded blockbusters, special effects and the as-yet-untapped youth market.
George Lucas' "Star Wars" was the ultimate sleeper - a frenetic, over-the-top space opera that no one wanted to bankroll (for what now seems a piddling $10 million), but which ended up pulling in $323 million in ticket sales, selling 30 million cassettes and spawning a $4 billion merchandising empire (everything from CD-ROMs to battery-powered lightsabers to Princess Leia undies).
Now, with the paraphernalia and toys more popular than ever among kids too young to have experienced the film in theaters, 20th Century Fox is trying something never before attempted: a full-scale, spare-no-expense re-launching of a 20-year-old picture.
Traditionally, classics like "Gone With the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia" receive limited bookings. "Star Wars" is being treated like a first-run, hot-off-the-assembly-line feature: It's going into 1,800 theaters nationwide, including the Century 22 on Winchester Blvd. in San Jose, where it broke all existing house records in the summer of '77.
But whatever you do, don't refer to the event as a "re-release" or "re-issue."
After dropping $15 million on restored 35mm prints, digital-stereo sound and a few computer-generated surprises - like a guest appearance by a more mobile Jabba the Hutt - Fox has earned the right to re-dub the production "Star Wars Special Edition." To maintain the momentum - "Remember those old Saturday matinee serials?" asks a studio exec - Fox will release the sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," on Feb. 21 and March 7, respectively.
"It's one of those cultural phenomena," says Fox vice president Tom Sherak. "Everybody remembers where they were when they saw `Star Wars' for the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in Baltimore; my wife was eight months pregnant ... "
But while nostalgia is nice, it will sell only so many tickets.
Fox has bigger plans: It's looking to mine a whole new audience - the 7-to-12-year-olds who have amassed "Star Wars" Micro Machines, collected "Star Wars" cards and rented "Star Wars" videos, but who have never seen the films as they were intended to be seen - on the big screen.
Enter the next generation of Jedi knights and princesses.
"The hard-core fans who bugged us to re-release the trilogy now have kids of their own and want to share the experience with them," says "Special Edition" producer Rick McCallum. "Originally, we were only going to do a limited release - 25-to-50 prints, tops. Then the trailer (tacked onto `Independence Day') drew applause from the fans and their kids. We said, `Let's do it for them."'
Hollywood largess or greed? A chance to relieve something etched on our collective subconscious, like Tara and the ruby slippers? Or, to quote independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom, a depressing reminder of "the single worst development to befall Hollywood"? Film scholars trace Hollywood's current "blockbuster mentality" to "Star Wars."
"That's a ludicrous concept," fires back McCallum. "There's always been blockbusters - `Birth of a Nation,' `Gone With the Wind,' `Ben-Hur."'
"It essentially crowded individual, personal films out," counters Jaglom, known for quirky, low-budget romances. "`Star Wars' was the beginning of the mammoth, meaningless superhero movies with Stallone and Schwarzenegger."
Expect this debate to rage as the trilogy warp-drives its way to what Fox brass hopes will be another $100 million payday. The "fantasy-camp" scenario, says Sherak, would be to have all three films in theaters by March. But this will depend on the availability of screens.
And the public's appetite for something old but new.
All told, Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic workshop in San Rafael, Calif., has added 4« minutes to "Star Wars." Now, thanks to digital imaging pioneered by ILM for "Jurassic Park" and "Twister," there are more extraterrestrial beasties on the streets of Mos Eisley, more laser blasts and Imperial storm troopers in the big shootouts.
"It's like that old screen door in back that never fits right," Lucas, 52, told Newsweek. "I wanted to fix little things that have bugged me for 20 years."
Entertainment Weekly, Wired and the New Yorker all gave over their covers to the cause. Local Toys R Us outlets have elbowed aside their "ID4" and "101 Dalmatian" lines for "Star Wars" X-Wing Fighters ($19.99), Talking C-3PO Carry Cases ($19.99) and Electronic Millennium Falcons with "authentic movie sounds" ($49.99).
Comic emporiums and bookstores have cleared space in anticipation of shipments of "Star Wars" role-playing cards and paperbacks (26 Bantam and Ballantine titles, plus new lines of Scholastic and Junior novelizations).
This, of course, is interstellar music to producer McCallum's ears.
"Special Edition" (Chapters IV-VI in what was always intended to be a nine-part saga) also is meant as primer - to prepare kids for the 1999 release of Lucas' next installment, which will take place 40 years before "Star Wars" and tell how Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker (a k a Darth Vader), was drawn to "the Dark Side." Chapters II and III are slated for 2001 and 2003.
"We wanted to reintroduce the `Star Wars' movies so these kids would be able to follow the prequel in three years," acknowledges McCallum, who will produce the new installments, described as "darker and more complex."
And the hard-core fans, now closer in age to Vader than Luke? Some (chatting online) have complained that the "digital face-lift," as it's been called, detracts from story and character interaction.
"Most of these changes the average person won't even get ... they'll just go by," predicts McCallum.
Hardly your average viewer, Phil Tippett is sure to spot each and every "fix."
The effects artist, who now runs his own Berkeley studio, animated the Imperial Walkers for "Empire" and designed Jabba for "Jedi," which brought him the first of two Oscars. "What we had (for Jabba) was a big puppet - this giant thing that couldn't move," he recalls. "With the new digital technology, George did a bit of retro-engineering: He took the (Jabba) design from `Jedi' and added this giant slug that moves to the first movie."
Is Tippett nervous about such "enhancements"?
"Sure," he replies. "You don't want to see all your work get replaced."
Skeptics believe Fox invested in the restoration and re-release because it wants to stay away from Lucas' dark side and get first shot at distributing the prequels.
Fox's Sherak dismisses such talk even as he confirms it. The studio's first concern, he stresses, was the "Star Wars" negative, which was in such poor shape "it couldn't be put on screen."
If this earns Lucas' everlasting gratitude, well, so much the better.
"Do we want to have the prequel? Of course we do - everybody does," says Sherak. "When George gets here, we'll lock the door and won't let him out until he makes the deal."
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