If there’s one thing I learned through the years about Lucasfilm, is that they are very shrewd when it comes to making money. I noticed that they came up with reasons to re-release the original trilogy on video and laserdisc. In 1995, it was the last time you could be able to own the original versions, in 1997 it was the initial release of the special editions on video. But it was merely priming audiences for the prequel trilogy that would shortly start getting released. It seemed like there were pattern forming. With the prequels being released in 1999, 2002, and 2005, it felt like Lucasfilm thought they needed something in the years between. In the years where there wasn’t a new Star Wars movie to promote, they needed something to drive sales in the interim.
Lucasfilm held off on DVD for a surprisingly long time. DVD’s really came into prominence in 2000, my family got our first DVD player in Christmas of 1999. Studios shortly after started to release DVD versions of their movies alongside the VHS versions when they were released, but when The Phantom Menace was released in April of 2000, it was released on VHS only. I remember this pissing off a ton of people. One year later, it was released on DVD in October of 2001. Next years release was of Episode II and unlike The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones came out on both DVD and VHS when it was released in November 2002. Not lost on anyone was the fact that while the prequels were being released on DVD, the Original Trilogy languished on VHS.
In 2003, Lucasfilm finally released the Indiana Jones trilogy on DVD for the first time. With another year with no new movie in 2004, the time was right for the release of the Original Trilogy on DVD at last. Speculation around the release centered on what version would be released on DVD, the original, unaltered versions, or the Special Editions. With the way Lucas treated the Special Editions, considering them the “real” versions of the trilogy, it is no surprise that the DVDs were Special Edition only. Not only were they special edition only, but this time there were even more alterations than in 1997. Needless to say, fans weren’t happy, but the sets sold well anyway.
With 2005s Revenge of the Sith, the prequel trilogy ended, but that wasn’t the end of the money making opportunity. To make it easier to make people buy the Original Trilogy again despite buying it two years earlier, it was announced that the Unaltered Original Trilogy would be coming to DVD for the first time. I was surprised when this was announced, since it appeared that George Lucas viewed the original versions as an embarrassment. But if it would get people to buy Star Wars again, it was acceptable to Lucasfilm, and the audience seemed to be happy about at last getting a chance to see Star Wars on DVD without Hayden Christensen appearing at the end of Return of the Jedi. In the back of my head I knew that there had to be a catch somewhere, because we couldn’t be getting the originals that easy, and I was right.
It turns out that the “original versions” that would be released on the DVDs were just the laserdisc transfers ported over onto a DVD. There are no attempts to clean up the transfer, no effort would be made to improve the image quality, it is literally the laserdisc transfer put on DVD. Unlike most DVDs, which had anamorphic transfers, the theatrical versions had a non anamorphic transfer. Back then, it didn’t make much difference to people, but I was looking forward at that point to HDTVs, and knew that these transfers would not fill up the upcoming HDTVs. So if you pop in the theatrical version into your TV today, you’ll get the movie with bars at the top and sides of your screen, putting the image in a box in the middle of the screen. In contrast the Special Edition versions on the first disc had an excellent transfer that would fill up your entire screen. It is pretty much an insult to the theatrical versions, to make the “real” versions look better. Due to the backlash over the decision, Lucasfilm decided to start calling the theatrical versions, “bonus discs” thereby making those versions out to be supplemental material to the “true versions” of the movies.
It’s good that we got those as “extras” because in this version of the trilogy there were no other extras. The only extras that carried over were the commentary tracks. The bonus disc from the 2004 release was omitted. In fact, these movies were released separately instead of a single edition like the 2004 edition was. The only way to get all in a single collection was to get a Best Buy exclusive metal box set, which contained all 3 DVD sets. I ended up getting this set because I did want to have the original versions in better than VHS quality. This ended up being the last time the original versions were released, so it is a “Limited Edition” that actually lived up to its title.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, rumors began spreading about a release of the original versions. So far, nothing has been confirmed, but I expect that it will happen one day. With Lucas no longer involved, it removes the major hurdle preventing the original versions from being released. I look at it this way – it is another way to make money on Star Wars. Would the Mouse House turn down free money?