REFUELED : After a $15-million restoration that includes new scenes and enhanced effects, Fox is spending another $15-million-plus to lure old and new ‘Star Wars’ fans.
Last July 4, Mann Theatres President Chuck Goldwater spotted the first swell of the “Star Wars” tsunami. He discovered that moviegoers were not just pouring into the Mann Village theater in Westwood to see “Independence Day.” They were coming to watch something even more momentous--the new “Star Wars” trailer.
“When the trailer played, the audience erupted--it was overwhelming,” recalls Goldwater, who is eagerly anticipating the return of the classic 1977 film, which opens Friday in 2,000 theaters across America. “When I asked our young ushers and managers if they wanted to see ‘Star Wars’ again, they all said, ‘We can’t wait--when’s it coming?’ ”
That was exactly the response 20th Century Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak had in 1992 when Lucasfilm President Gordon Radley met with 15 high-level Fox executives in a boardroom at the Fox Tower office building on the studio lot. Radley had flown down from Lucasfilm’s Marin County headquarters to propose a 1997 “Star Wars” re-release to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. The reissue was a big priority with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, who wanted to digitally refurbish scenes in the film he felt had been rushed or compromised by budgetary and technological limitations.
“I was looking for an excuse to go back and fix things that had bugged me forever,” says Lucas, who made the film for $10 million, a low budget given the film’s unprecedented use of special effects. “There were a lot of things that weren’t right--bad special effects, the Mos Eisley scene, which was supposed to show this big bustling city but looked more like a tiny village.”
Fox, which had distributed the entire “Star Wars” trilogy, didn’t need any encouragement. “We had no idea what the cost would be--we didn’t even know whether we had a [usable] negative,” says Sherak, who has been the studio’s point man with Lucas. “We just knew we wanted to do it.”
As it turned out, the then-15-year-old film stock had deteriorated so badly that the studio couldn’t find a releasable print. After screening a host of prints, Lucasfilm staffers designed a plan to restore the prints, enhance the soundtrack and insert about 150 new computer-effects shots.
As enthusiasm built, Lucas says he proposed restoring the entire trilogy and releasing it in rapid succession. “I thought it would be neat if they were all in the theaters, so you could take your kids to the movies every Saturday and have a new movie to watch. That’s the way it was originally intended, as a Saturday matinee series.”
It ultimately cost $15 million to restore all three films. Fox, which owns “Star Wars,” put up $10 million to refurbish the film. Lucas, who owns the subsequent films, contributed $5 million to revamp “The Empire Strikes Back,” which arrives Feb. 21, and “Return of the Jedi,” due out March 7. (Fox will spend in excess of $15 million to launch the re-release.)
Hard-core fans, who track “Star Wars” developments through various fanzines and Internet sites, have been aware of most of the changes for months, which include two new scenes, most notably a never-before-seen encounter between Harrison Ford and a computer-generated Jabba the Hutt. But Lucas has made other, previously un-publicized changes.
When Empire storm troopers arrive on the desert planet Tatooine pursuing R2-D2 and C-3PO, they originally are seen on stationary dewback beasts. But Lucas did more than create spiffed-up digital dewbacks--he also re-shot several desert scenes at a remote California location, using extras outfitted as storm troopers.
Why the need for re-shoots? Fox sources say that on the original print the garishly discolored desert background couldn’t even be repaired with computer graphics. But Lucas, through a spokesperson, says he did the re-shoots “because I wanted to.”
In December Fox quietly held a “Star Wars” screening for 1,000 recruited moviegoers at the AMC multiplex in Woodland Hills. The screening was scheduled to start at 9 a.m. At midnight the night before, 400 people were already camped outside the theater so they could be first in line for good seats.
Normally, movie studios hold test screenings to gauge audience response to a new film. That wasn’t an issue with “Star Wars.” Fox wanted to videotape moviegoers’ exuberant reactions, which have been incorporated into TV ads promoting the film.
Each ad sends the same message: Back on the Big Screen. “We don’t have to tell people what this movie is about,” Sherak says. “What we wanted was to have people feel the excitement of seeing it on a big screen for the first time in 20 years. And the best way to do that was to show how an audience that had just seen it was reacting. Everyone was celebrating--it was like you were at a Bruce Springsteen concert.”
It’s obvious that “Star Wars” is the touchstone film for a generation of moviegoers. “It was the best high Hollywood had ever given anybody,” says author Neal Gabler, a leading popular culture historian who saw “Star Wars” the day it opened in Los Angeles. “Movies today have this narcotic appeal. You need a new, more powerful drug every opening weekend--how can we top ‘Mission: Impossible’? Or top ‘The Rock’? Or ‘Twister’?
“ ‘Star Wars is the godhead of all those movies. It was there first, which is what gives it such resonance. It’s the source--everyone remembers the first time they saw ‘Star Wars.’ ”
That goes even for the executives who now run the movie business. “My father took me to see it at the Loews Astor Plaza in Manhattan when I was 12 and I was totally blown away,” recalls New Line Productions President Michael DeLuca. “We were obsessed, talking about the movie all the time. I went back to see it 12 times at my neighborhood theater in Brooklyn.
“I keyed right into Luke Skywalker, who wanted to get off his planet. He was like me, wanting to get out of Brooklyn.”
Of course, in today’s Hollywood, everything eventually comes down to business. Perhaps that’s why most of the discussion about the re-release has focused on predicting the size of the “Star Wars” grosses. It’s an intriguing guessing game, since outside of Disney’s reissues of its animated films, studios have rarely staged such an ambitious release for a restored classic.
According to John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, since the mid-1980s, the biggest gross for a reissued film is by “101 Dalmatians,” which made $60 million in 1991. The tracking numbers, which measure audience awareness and definite interest in seeing the film, give Fox reason to be optimistic.
“They could have an incredible run at the box office,” says Chris Pula, head of marketing at Warner Bros. “By adding new scenes and new effects, you’re not just reliving the definitive fantasy film, but you’re getting a value-added experience.”
Marketing experts point to “Star Wars’ ” unique multi-generational merchandising clout. Even while the film has been out of circulation, its toy, book and video game spinoffs have flourished, sustaining the franchise’s appeal. Next to “The Lion King,” the best-selling video of ’95 was the “Star Wars” trilogy, which sold 28 million copies. Though Lucas licensing division chief Howard Roffman refused to divulge numbers, he says “Star Wars” has been the No. 1 toy brand among boys for the last two Christmas seasons. Pepsi has launched a $50-million TV and in-store promotion campaign that will have the film’s characters hawking Frito-Lay, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut products.
“I’ve got kids as old as 23 and as young as 7, and the one thing they both want to do is see ‘Star Wars,’ ” says Jeff Blake, head of distribution for Sony Pictures. “If you only captured that audience--7 to 23--you’d have a big opening. But I want to see it, too, so it looks like they’ve got the makings of a big event.”
Producer Sid Ganis, a former marketing chief at Sony and Lucasfilm, was impressed by how well the “Star Wars” trailer has been received by theater audiences. “The reaction has been amazing,” he says. “It’s incredible to see how parents are almost as excited as their kids.”
Not everyone thinks Fox can sustain such a high level of interest for each subsequent release. “Once the true believers have seen it, the numbers will drop off significantly,” says a rival studio marketing executive. “It’s presumptuous to think that the only three movies people are going to see in the next six weeks will be the ‘Star Wars’ films.”
Fox has every incentive to make a big splash. The studio is eager to acquire distribution rights for the three proposed prequel “Star Wars” films, which begin shooting later this year. Because of Lucas’ long-standing relationship with Fox, the studio should have the inside track, especially if Lucas is pleased with Fox’s handling of the current re-releases. But a key ingredient in the deal would be the continued presence of Sherak, who has been in prolonged contract negotiations with the studio.
“If he’s not there, Fox would be in trouble, because he’s the studio’s link to Lucas,” says a prominent Hollywood executive. “George needs a distribution machine that clicks and Sherak is the guy who makes it click.”
Sherak would not discuss his contract situation, except to say “my home is Fox and I would love to stay here.” He did say that the studio would aggressively pursue the rights to the prequel films. Sherak has already designed an acquisition strategy. “George has promised to come talk to us first. So my plan is simple. We lock the doors and don’t let him out.”
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