As I'm sure you recall, the gamble paid off and the Star Wars Special Editions were a huge box office sensation.
"Twenty Years ago Star Wars was the number 1 movie in the country. Last weekend, History repeated itself as millions of people joined the celebration and made it the number 1 movie all over again. Star Wars: The Special Edition. Now playing on the big Screen."
A week after the release of Star Wars: The Special Edition, Fox Television celebrated the re-release of the three legendary films by airing Star Wars: The Magic and the Mystery.
That same week, Entertainment Weekly examined the success of the Star Wars Special Edition:
'STAR WARS' $36 MILLION SECOND COMING HAS HOLLYWOOD FEELING THE FORCE OF RERELEASE
Truth is definitely stranger than fiction--even when the fiction involves a seven-foot, gun-toting space ape named Chewie. The proof could be seen last week as thousands of moviegoers, many of them channeling the Force, lined up once again to see Star Wars. "There's a fine line between fan and fanatic," said Joshua Cordes, 21, who waited outside Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theatre on opening night dressed as Luke Skywalker and waving a plastic lightsaber, "and I crossed that line a long time ago."
By Monday morning, Cordes (who was only a year old when Wars first premiered in 1977) and his fellow War-riors had given George Lucas' newly enhanced sci-fi classic the biggest January weekend opening ever: $35.9 million. "We knew it was going to open, but nobody knew how it was going to open," says an ecstatic Tom Sherak, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Domestic Film Group. "Now we're all like kids in a candy store."
Of course, the only ones indulging their sweet tooth are Fox executives. Wars' phenomenal showing means that it (and its soon-to-be-rereleased sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) will likely rule the box office through March, throwing a serious monkey wrench into the schedules of rival studios. Universal, in particular, has to be concerned, considering it has an estimated $115 million invested in the lava-fest Dante's Peak, which opens Feb. 7. Peak is now clearly in danger of losing its own event potential and will probably open light-years behind Wars, also the likely fate of Sony's Absolute Power (also Feb. 7) and Disney's That Darn Cat (Feb. 14).
And there will be other consequences of the Wars aftermath. "You're going to see a lot of older pictures brought back in big campaigns," says Tom Pollock, chairman of the American Film Institute and former head of Universal Pictures. Paramount has already booked The Godfather for a limited rerelease March 21; and this fall, Columbia will send another sci-fi hit from 1977, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, back to the multiplexes. Says Columbia's head of distribution, Jeff Blake, "Certainly Star Wars does make you pretty bullish."
Speaking of Spielberg, with Wars now certain to overtake E.T. as the top-grossing film of all time (see chart), speculation has already begun that the competitive DreamWorks chief, and close Lucas pal, may rerelease his 1982 extraterrestrial smash. But according to Spielberg's spokesman Marvin Levy, there are no immediate plans for E.T. to reappear. And even if it did, there's little chance of duplicating the Wars phenomenon. Says Levy: "It's a different film. They're not going to yell at the screen when he says, 'E.T. phone home.'"
Of course, the biggest winner of this newfound Force frenzy--other than Lucas--is Fox, the studio that bankrolled the film the first time around. With the success of the rerelease's marketing campaign, Fox has got a running start at winning the distribution rights to the Wars prequels--what Levy calls "the brass ring"--due from Lucas beginning in the summer of 1999. "My guess is now it's theirs to lose," says one movie executive. Even Spielberg's DreamWorks, which many once thought had the inside track for the prequels, has to be reeling.
Well, at least Spielberg can still say he's got the top-grossing film in history. For a few more days.
TOP-GROSSING FILMS OF ALL TIME
#1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $399.8
#2. Star Wars $358.9
#3. Jurassic Park $357.1
#4. Forrest Gump $329.7
#5. The Lion King $312.9
Domestic grosses in millions. Source: Exhibitor Relations
By CHRIS NASHAWATY
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GREGG KILDAY AND DAVID POLAND
EDITED BY MAGGIE MURPHY
Copyright © Time Inc., 1997. All rights reserved.
[Source: Entertainment Weekly, 2/14/97, Issue 366, p6]
CINEMA: THE FORCE IS BACK
According to one person who helped work on it, the most famous opening title in film history nearly began "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away..." Not that that's so different from "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." It's just that Star Wars has become such a cultural given that it almost seems as if the film had been channeled from the pop ether fully formed and perfect, like a melody entering Paul McCartney's head. With all the hoopla surrounding the current rerelease, it's easy to forget just how dicey a proposition Star Wars was in 1977 when it opened not on 2,104 screens around the country, as it did last week, but on only 35--which itself suggests an entirely different era of moviegoing. No one associated with the film expected it to be a hit, not even writer-director George Lucas. "I thought it was too wacky for the general public," he claims today. "I just said, 'Well, I've had my big hit [with American Graffiti], and I'm happy. And I'm going to do this kind of crazy thing, and it'll be fun, and that will be that.'"
Of course, as pretty much anyone old enough to read this knows, that wasn't just that. Despite a comparative lack of hype, even by 1977's standards, Star Wars was an instant line-around-the-block sensation, raking in then unprecedented repeat business to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until it was knocked off the pedestal by E.T. five years later). Star Wars also launched an armada of ancillary merchandise that has far outstripped the actual film and its sequels in revenues (roughly $4 billion, vs. a mere $1.3 billion).
Which isn't to underplay the movie's aesthetic triumph. With its unprecedented blend of narrative innocence and stylistic sophistication, of pseudomythic solemnity and high-tech kick, of abject weirdness and cunning familiarity, Star Wars helped set the standard for what a modern commercial movie can be at its best (ingenious, kinetic, exhilarating). Unfortunately it also provided a template with which countless imitators have since shown what a modern commercial movie can be at its dreariest (mind numbing, mechanical, pointlessly assaultive). For good or evil, Star Wars has been to the past two decades of American moviemaking what Ronald Reagan was to the past two decades of American politics: defining, unavoidable, but hard, in the end, for even detractors to hate.
Certainly no other movie has ever been rereleased with the kind of fanfare that 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm Ltd. have drummed up for Star Wars' reappearance in theaters a few months in advance of its 20th anniversary (notice you didn't see Vertigo cups at Taco Bell on the occasion of that film's rerelease last year). Not only has Star Wars had its negative restored and its sound track digitally remastered--the normal course of events for such updating--but outtakes have also been added, original scenes spruced up and new elements worked into old footage to take advantage of 20 years' worth of progress in the effects trade. Similarly enhanced "special editions" of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will blow into theaters sequentially over the next few weeks, freed for the first time in more than a decade from the cinematic coffin of home video. Besides helping to wring a few more dollars out of the old movies, the refurbishment has also served as pre-preproduction for a new Star Wars movie that is scheduled to start shooting this fall for a 1999 release, the first of the long-awaited trilogy of prequels to the extant films.
Is it just a happy coincidence that renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars has been steadily growing the past few years? That's what the skillful imagemakers at Lucasfilm claim. The renaissance began in 1991 with the publication of Heir to the Empire, an original Star Wars novel continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and company; it spent a total of 29 weeks on various New York Times best-seller lists. Like a trip wire on the zeitgeist, the novel provided the first glimmer of the public's fresh hunger for a franchise that had largely lain dormant since the mid-'80s. Indeed, Lucasfilm had pretty much stopped licensing Star Wars merchandise, although that quickly turned around: since 1991, hundreds of new Star Wars products have entered the market, from the usual action figures and trading cards to video games and high-end items like lithographs based on original production art or a 6-ft.-tall storm trooper ("made of pristine fiber glass" and available for only $4,995). As Star Wars Insider, an official fan-club publication, puts it: "There is more nifty stuff to buy [than ever before] if that's how you choose to express Star Wars-ness." Throw in a $2 billion marketing agreement with PepsiCo, and Star Wars-ness is arguably more potent a force than ever before.
Given all that, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this phenomenon sprang from the imagination of a single man (even Walt Disney needed help from the Brothers Grimm). Lucas' offices, as well as many of his filmmaking facilities, are located on Skywalker Ranch, 3,000 mostly pristine acres in the farther reaches of Marin County, 425 miles north of Hollywood. Given the comparative remoteness and Lucas' image in the press as an elusive personality, not to mention the reverential way in which his colleagues and employees often speak about him (one hears a lot of talk about what "George likes" and what "George wants" and how one must go about achieving "George's vision"), a melodramatic visitor might be forgiven for imagining himself as Martin Sheen traveling upriver in search of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (a film, by the way, that Lucas originally developed, and that he intended to direct before ceding it to Francis Coppola).
In person, Lucas turns out to be neither bald nor insane nor T.S. Eliot-quoting. Instead he is low-key and unpretentious, a serious but not uncheerful man who seems used to having things his way, in a manner probably not unlike a lot of other millionaire Northern California entrepreneurs (though at 52 he is something of an elder statesman). His ranch's high-tech facilities are disguised by tidy vineyards and lovingly detailed re-creations of turn-of-the-century Northern California architecture: even the luxe employee gym in this better class of Disney World has Arts and Crafts-like lighting fixtures. Clearly this is the domain of a man with a strong vision, one for which he has just as clearly been remunerated many times over, so it's hard to know precisely what to think when he claims, "I'm just working on the fringes here in San Francisco of what is aesthetically acceptable." Is he joking, fighting old battles, or indulging in a bit of wishful thinking?
Probably all three. He cites the non-narrative, almost abstract films he made as a student at the University of Southern California 30 years ago as touchstones for the kinds of films he'd really like to make--pure cinema--and plans to make once he's done with what he calls "this theatrical thing" or "this theatrical immersion." That's a reference to his 25-year career as a commercial filmmaker, which he makes sound as if it were merely a phase he's going through, like a teenage girl shoplifting nail polish. Some phase: after writing and directing Star Wars, which was his third feature and one he has described as unusually draining to make, Lucas stepped back to take an executive producer's role--albeit an unusually hands-on one--for Star Wars' almost as successful sequels. He did the same for the Indiana Jones trilogy. All told, he's responsible for four of the 20 highest-grossing movies in film history. Not that all his films have been smashes: Lucasfilm was responsible for the infamous Howard the Duck, as well as the more recent and not quite as spectacularly awful Radioland Murders, a postmodern screwball that Lucas describes as "an experiment in really fast-paced comedy. It failed," he readily admits. "But I like doing that--I like pushing the language of film to see where the limits are."
"George is actually quite a small filmmaker," insists Rick McCallum, the producer of the Star Wars special editions as well as the prequels. "I think he's been kind of embarrassed by the huge success of both Indiana Jones and Star Wars." If so, he's an ingrate. Back in 1977, he used the clout he had gained from American Graffiti's unexpected success to renegotiate his contract with Fox for directing Star Wars--not for more money but for exclusive rights to sequels and licensing, evidence that he must have had some faith in the movie. And since licensing in the mid-'70s wasn't the huge profit center for studios it is today--Star Wars helped create that too--Lucas' deal was arguably even more farsighted than the resulting film. Today he is as much a businessman as he is a filmmaker: his shrewd skill in reinvesting his profits (among other things, he owns Industrial Light & Magic, the premier special-effects house, and LucasArts, one of the nation's top four cd-rom makers) has enabled him to become sole owner of what is essentially his own ministudio. "I think what drives him as a businessman is control," says McCallum. "Control over his work. That's primary."
His company's orchestration of the special editions has been sublime. Early projections for Star Wars have it doing record-breaking business for a rerelease--possibly taking in as much as $30 million for the first three days. The original plan had been to celebrate the 20th anniversary simply by showing Star Wars in a few cities around the country in the style of an old-fashioned road show. But once Lucas saw how much work was going to be involved in restoring the film's deteriorated negative (it's not just movies from Hollywood's Golden Age that suffer from this problem), he decided, he says, to seize the opportunity--along with $15 million worth of financing for the whole trilogy, mostly from Fox--to go in and touch up sloppy special-effects shots that had always bothered him. "I was tired of people saying, 'What do you think of the movie?' and I'd say, 'Well, I was unhappy with the final result, because I only achieved 50% or 60% of what I wanted and I wish it would be better.' And everybody would look at me funny and say, 'What do you mean? It was successful.' But every time I saw it, I'd think, 'Oh God, that's so awful, I can't watch this.'"
The opportunity to rework the film has maybe soothed some of that old pain. Outdated special-effects shots have been tidied up. (Lucas complains in particular about a "fuzzy Vaseline blob" beneath Luke Skywalker's land speeder.) Computer-generated creatures (Rontos and Jawas and such) were added to the backgrounds of previously static scenes. Extra spaceships with keener moves now flesh out some of the climactic battle scenes. A scene has been restored between Han Solo and the reptilian loan shark Jabba the Hutt that was discarded when Lucas couldn't figure out a satisfactory way to concoct Jabba (he finally appeared as a mammoth rubbery puppet in Return of the Jedi; he's computer generated here). "One thing leads to another," says Lucas. "You paint part of the house, and then you say, 'Well, gee, this room looks great, but now the rest of the house doesn't look so great.'" One of the trickiest aspects of the process was getting the new shots to fit with 20-year-old images and film stock. "We had to degrade them a little bit in terms of the resolution," Lucas explains. "Most of the shots that we're talking about, which are the space battle shots at the end of the movie, were actually done on a Macintosh, the kind of thing that almost anybody can do." All told, about a third of the first movie's special-effects shots were worked on, producing roughly 4 1/2 minutes of new footage--or at least "new" in the sense that Free as a Bird was a new Beatles song.
To eyes less keen than Lucas', the changes may appear to be more of a marketing tool than a genuinely significant embellishment of what was still a perfectly enjoyable film. Lucas now claims to be happy with "about 80%" of Star Wars--and annoyed with purists who resent his mucking about with a classic. After all, Star Wars is his movie. "The only thing I joke about now is it would be fun--and we can't do this for another 10 years or so--to go back and digitize the entire movie and clean it up. But that's such a subtle, subtle thing." Perhaps then he'll be able to do something about Mark Hamill's Shaun Cassidy-esque haircut, not to mention the doughnuts on the side of Carrie Fisher's head.
Back in 1977, long before politicians made careers out of demagoguing the issue of Hollywood's supposed lack of "family values," Lucas said his "main reason" for making Star Wars "was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had." Today, as a divorced father of three children (two of whom he adopted on his own), Lucas takes seriously the notion that entertainers have an obligation to promote positive moral values in their work. He talks earnestly about what artists "teach" with their creations--and with a little prodding he even criticizes himself for the scene played for laughs in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones drops his bullwhip and casually guns down an Arab swordsman. In fact, one of the changes to Star Wars modifies a gratuitously violent encounter in the cantina scene during which Han Solo shoots one of his creditors, a green anteater-like thing named Greedo. In the new version it's made clear, thanks to an added blaster shot that ricochets around the room, that Greedo fired first and that Han killed him in self-defense--perhaps a small victory for Hollywood's moral scourges, but a victory nonetheless.
But despite his evident sincerity about his work, Lucas strikes an oddly dispassionate tone when asked about the content of his movies, or why he thinks Star Wars endures so splendidly. "The only thing I can think of is the fact that it's based on ideas and themes that have been around for two to three thousand years when you get down to it." Storytelling does not, apparently, come easy to Lucas; he says it has been more of a learned, or willed, talent (critics might say that shows in Star Wars' comic-book derivativeness). After an initial burst of inspiration, writing the screenplay for Star Wars became an almost "academic" exercise in refashioning ancient myths for modern audiences (at the time--no surprise--he was reading a lot of Joseph Campbell). In this vein, Lucas' most memorable invention was his notion of the Force--"an energy field created by all living things," as Obi-Wan Kenobi puts it. "It's a distillation of a lot of mythological religious teachings," Lucas says. "Not that I'm promoting a particular idea or anything. I believe in God, and I guess that's reflected in the movie, but that's about as far as it goes." A Judeo-Christian God? "I wouldn't go that far. My spiritual perspective, I think, is broader than the Judeo-Christian. But I hate to get into putting a label on it, because I think what I feel hasn't been labeled yet, at least not to my knowledge."
As the prequels will make even more clear by telling the story of Darth Vader's youth and eventual fall to the Dark Side, Star Wars, like most religious texts, is ultimately a family saga. (The prequels end with the birth of Vader's son Luke, who fights and ultimately redeems him by the end of the current trilogy.) Which begs the question of Lucas' relationship with his own father, with whom he had a break when the budding director went off to Hollywood instead of enlisting in the family stationery store. ("George never listened to me. He was his mother's pet," George Lucas Sr. told TIME in 1983, eight years before his death. "George was hard to understand. He was always dreaming things up.") Obviously, fighting with your father over career paths isn't quite the same thing as having him cut off your hand during a light saber duel, as happens to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, but armchair analysis sees a connection--one that Lucas shrugs off. "There's a lot of pop psychology on Star Wars, believe me. Some of it is extremely amusing. But I haven't found too much of it that's relevant."
One thing that does get Lucas riled is criticism that dismisses Star Wars and some of his other films as mere popcorn or adrenaline movies, thrilling and technically adept but soulless. This line of thinking also lays blame at Lucas' door for the even more soulless likes of The Rock, along with responsibility for the so-called blockbuster mentality that currently plagues Hollywood. By way of a response, his publicists have even compiled statistics showing that Hollywood's ratio of "art films" to "blockbuster-type" movies has actually increased since 1977.
Not that Lucas is defensive. "I like things fast," he says. "That's the way I am, personally. But I still enjoy other kinds of movies a great deal. I like movies that are, you know--I like Last Year at Marienbad. It's just that my talent runs in a different direction." As for Star Wars: "If it was just an adrenaline-rush movie, it wouldn't be here 20 years later. There are other things going on that are more complicated and psychologically satisfying. It's like sex and love. Sex is a rush for a short period of time, and then it goes away. If you only have an adrenaline movie, then it's more like having sex. Whereas if people are still interested and fondly thinking about your movie 20 years later, it was either the best sex they ever had in their life, or it's romantic love, which means there is more to it than just the adrenaline rush. I don't know if that's a great quote, but anyway..."
During a photo shoot for this article, Lucas seems locked into a dour pose. "What are you so glum about?" the photographer kids him. "You've got the best toys in the world and a full head of hair." And yet there does seem to be a certain burden to being George Lucas. His workdays, when he's not at home writing the scripts for the prequels, seem murderously overscheduled. In his role as the sun at the center of the ever expanding Star Wars universe, he signs off on all the various new projects--"They ask me if they can do a book where Yoda tap-dances, and I say yes or no." He claims he has no time to play the video games, and offers an abrupt "No comment" when asked if he reads the novels. Maybe he really is embarrassed by the demands of his creation's success.
Lucas has always insisted he is a filmmaker first and foremost. And he does get passionate when talking about his craft, and his coming return to the director's chair for the first prequel (now that new film technology has made the job less onerous). "There was a cinematic innovation in the first Star Wars film that made people say, 'Gee, I'd never seen that before,'" he says. "I have the opportunity to do that again with the prequels. The fun part for me is to say, 'You want me to come back and do that for you? I can do that. I'll do it. Here.'"
AN EVEN LONGER TIME AGO...
George tries to keep us calm in production meetings, but the scope of this thing is a breakthrough in and of itself," says Jim Morris, president of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic special-effects firm. He's talking about the first of the Star Wars prequels, which will begin shooting this fall with Lucas himself as director (no one has yet been cast). The plan, Morris says, is to make unprecedented use of digital filmmaking technology. Not only will there be computer-generated characters, but there will also be digital environments, props, costumes. Lucas says he's aiming for a more epic, David Lean-like look in the new movies. Morris talks about weaving a richer "tapestry." A new scene created for the rerelease of Return of the Jedi, a stunning shot of a skyscrapered alien cityscape teeming with crowds like those in Times Square on New Year's Eve, is a taste of what they're talking about.
The prequels explain how young Anakin Skywalker succumbs to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader. "They're much more down," says Lucas. "Commercial logic would say, Don't do that." Uh-huh. Movie studios are nevertheless panting for the right to release the Lucas-financed films. But that question won't be decided until the last minute.
By Bruce Handy
OUR CRITIC RIDES A TIME MACHINE
On June 3, 1977, I officially got old. Just back from the Cannes film Festival, I'd been told by my editors at New Times magazine to catch up with Star Wars, which had opened to phenomenal business. And from the moment of the opening crawl, I was baffled. All these dense factoids about Galactic Empires and Death Stars--it was like some nightmare of a pop quiz in a course I hadn't taken. The sets were Formica, the characters cardboard; the tale had drive but no depth, a tour at warp speed through an antiseptic landscape. I admired George Lucas' attention to detail, his Tolkien-like industry in creating a host of alien life-forms, but I remained unmoved. Peering at Star Wars through the telescope of my disinterest, I made this fearless box-office prediction: "The movie's 'legs' will prove as vulnerable as C-3PO's."
That was eons ago, in pop-cultural terms. Records were still on vinyl; CDs, VCRs, video games and home computers were barely dreamed of; and films were shown in theaters or, years later, on broadcast TV. Before Star Wars, a blockbuster movie was one that everybody, of every age, wanted to see once. The big hits of the '70s--Airport, Love Story, The Godfather, The Sting, Jaws--were broad based, reflecting the audience's demographic democracy. Star Wars devised a novel equation: here was a film every teenage boy wanted to see a dozen times. Lucas spoke, from his bionic heart, to the American boy's love for shiny gadgets, spiffy uniforms, authoritative-sounding technotalk and a hot rod that shoots really cool laser blasts. The film certified a new wisdom: megamovies were now the province of the young male.
Twenty years later, much has changed, including Star Wars--not the few minutes of noodling by Lucas and his effects mavens but the way we look at the film. Nothing ages so quickly as yesterday's vision of the future, or of the technologically advanced past that Lucas imagined. Today we can wallow in the film's sleek retro-kitsch; even the opening logo has acquired the classic blockiness of a '56 DeSoto. One can find endearment in the lame badinage of C-3PO, in Carrie Fisher's bagel-like hairdo, in the whining and bickering of the lead characters, in the varying pronunciations of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the planet Alderaan. The invocation to "trust your feelings" seems a woozy echo of the '67 Summer of Love, not the '77 summer of Wars, but Alec Guinness carries himself with the majesty of a Jedi knight and an acting peer. The climactic dogfight, copied in a quillion arcade games, has thrust and logic; it's the clearest, most potent narrative section of the movie.
By the end, with starsurfer Luke and antihero Han Solo and all the pudgy, pasty-faced rebel pilots finally functioning as a team, Star Wars has declared its intention: to be a celebration of communal subversiveness. The Jedi Force is itself a kind of cosmic team spirit. So it's appropriate that the movie come back into theaters to give kids of all ages the communal kick of a big-screen experience. Some early viewers have applauded the new material; others (the true believers) have booed it. But all cheer when the Millennium Falcon zaps into hyperspace; it is a video game a thousand people can play at once, and a time machine into movie memory. Who wouldn't enjoy being in a huge theater with a familiar friend from long ago and far, far away?
In 1997 I'm still old. The Star Wars generation is middle-aged. But Lucas' epic has got younger. Innocence will do that to a movie.
By RICHARD CORLISS
[Source: Time. 2/10/1997, Vol. 149 Issue 6, p68-75]
Copyright © Time Inc., 1997. All rights reserved.