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Who Owns The Movies, The Creator Or The Public?

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At what point is a movie no longer owned by the filmmaker and instead owned by society?  Does that transition ever occur?  In recent years, with the advent of DVDs and new digital technologies, filmmakers have found it to be their right to go back and alter movies, movies that have been a part of our popular culture for twenty years or more.   

This all comes to mind because this Tuesday, George Lucas is re-releasing the original Star Wars Trilogy to DVD. This time around however, if one buys Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, they will receive the 2004 updated version and the original 1977 version as well (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will also be released as both the original theatrical version and the updated 2004 editions).     

Sort of.  At least one exceedingly minor content change from the original theatrical release will occur.  When the prologue scrolls at the top of the movie, it will say “Episode IV” and underneath that “A New Hope.”  The original theatrical release of this film lacked the “Episode IV” title.      

This is a very minor change, and one that probably very few, if any, people will actually complain about.  It probably doesn’t really change anything; maybe the way society sees the film, but we’ve been taught to see it as Episode IV anyway by now.  So Lucas going back and editing that part is most likely acceptable except to an exceedingly small portion of the population.   

At what point is it not acceptable, though?  In the special editions of the movie Lucas certainly improved the sound quality.  Is that okay?  He also improved the special effects and added more digital creatures.  Is that something we can approve of?  Some people at this point would still say that it’s all well and good, even a good percentage of Star Wars fans.     

An incredibly vocal segment of Star Wars fans balk at the notion that Han Solo didn’t shoot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina (a quick Google search of the phrase "Han Shoots First" turns up 24,400 hits, including a HanShootsFirst.org & a HanShootsFirst.com).  Han certainly shot first in the 1977 release.  In the Special Edition release he didn’t; Greedo fired the first shot.  Is that a minor change?  Is that a major change?  Many would argue that this moment actually changes who Han Solo is at the start of the trilogy.     

If Greedo shoots first and Han is protecting himself, is Han’s emotional change and story arc smaller over the course of the trilogy?  If Han shoots first he starts out closer to being evil, or if not evil certainly more on the outskirts of acceptability.  By having Greedo shoot first and Han fire only after being attacked, he may have a shorter way to travel to being the hero of the Rebellion that he becomes by the end of Return of the Jedi.     

Is that too far?  Is it always George Lucas’ movie and does he therefore have the right to continually edit and re-edit it?  And what about Harrison Ford who played this iconic character, should he get any so whatsoever in this?     

George Lucas isn’t the only person to do this in recent memory.  Steven Spielberg, for the 20th Anniversary of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, made several changes to his movie.  He changed all the guns police officers were holding in one scene to walkie-talkies, changed a line about a Halloween costume from “terrorist” to “hippie,” and digitally enhanced many of E.T.’s facial expressions.   

Many movies have been released as “director’s editions” that continue with more footage or a slightly altered story (the elimination of the voice-over in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for example).  But the digital technology seems to allow for more of this to occur. 

An inordinately high percentage of films released to DVD have scenes on the disc that were not included in the theatrical release.  Sometimes these scenes are part of the film itself and sometimes they are only available through submenus.     

As our society changes and technology changes, filmmaking necessarily changes as well.  But does that give the filmmaker the right to change previously released titles.  What if Michael Curtiz had decided in the late 1950s that he wanted to colorize or change the ending to Casablanca? Should he have been allowed to do it?     

Most people would agree that some changes are acceptable, the addition of the subtitle “Episode IV” to the first Star Wars movie for instance.  Most would agree that some changes go too far; had Curtiz decided to change the ending to Casablanca, for example.     

It’s the middle ground where things get iffy. Is there a clear line that can’t be crossed? Is it a case-by-case basis? If so, who should institute these rules and how? The idea of creating a new regulatory agency seems outlandish and wrong, and the idea of filmmakers self-policing seems unlikely.  After all, it is their creation.     

But then again, if a film is part of the public consciousness, doesn’t it belong to all of us? 

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • Great article and food for thought. Lucas screwed up where other directors have done it well. I do not believe it is the changing that is the problem so much as the erasing.

    Lucas had said that he would never release the original again because he flet it was an unfinished movie. Fans yelled and screamed so he is releasing it now, but making us buy yet another copy of the horrible 2004 version. It would be my 4th. Lucas should be giving them to us now since we have bought the same damn movies so many times.

    Back to the point, a director can alter any film they release, but they should not replace the original with the new one. Think “Army of Darkness” for the example. It has been re-released probably more than Star Wars has, but Sam Rami never took the original off the market. He just added a Director’s Cut to be sold as well. Fans could get either one or both or either. Sam Rami is a fan as well as a film maker. Others should follow his example.

  • At what point is a movie no longer owned by the filmmaker and instead owned by society?


    Does that transition ever occur?


    Ford gets no say unless his contract says different.

    It sucks, but that’s show business. Buy the copy you want and settle for nothing less. If all the idiotic Star Wars would stop buying every single version, Lucas might stop tinkering. If people had stood up and not bought the latest versions, Lucas would have released the originals, but he’s such a whore I’m guessing he would have done that anyway because his fans are all-day suckers.

    Han does shoot first, but it’s no surprise that Lucas screwed that up and didn’t understand why. He is a horrible storyteller as evidenced by the latest SW trilogy as he ruined the whole mythology. He was obviously helped in his earlier work by uncerdited screenwriters who knew what they were doing, and is now surround by yes-men who are afraid to tell the emperor he is creatively naked.

  • Alden

    While the Lucas/Han Solo discussion is interesting, what about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner? Over the course of the “director’s cuts” Scott has repeatedly added touches to emphasize his perspective that Rickard was a replicant, even though the screenwriter has said didn’t write the story with that intent and Harrison Ford has gone on record claiming that Scott had agreed to abandon that notion during filming. These changes affect the entire film, not just one character.

    According to this Wikipedia entry about the film, Scott’s most recent version of the film (including footage shot in 2001) will be released next year as a “final cut.” It will undoubtedly be yet another version of the story, and will probably contain additional scenes to emphasize Scott’s perspective on the story. But Scott would argue that much of what he is doing is an effort to restore the film to his original vision – and his argument would be that since now he can “get it right,” why shouldn’t he?

    To recast your question: at which point does the audience have the right to dictate to the creator how to tell his story? Is the public somehow “entitled” to control the storytelling process, or to hold the creator to one version? The answer, of course, is that they can whine and moan, but the creator is entitled to release his story as he wishes, and the audience is left with the choice of taking it, leaving it, or making their own movie.

  • The public should never own the movies, or television for that matter. Look at what happened to Doctor Who during it’s original run. The last producer to take control was reportedly sucking in every word the fans said.

    Thou I am somewhat half a fan of his run (the sly mccoy years), it’s easy to see he let the show be run by the fans.

  • Fans always think they have rights over creators. The fans of the dirty Sistine Chapel didn’t want it cleaned up, even though the world would finally be able to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece as it looked when first finished. Sherlock Holmes’ fans insisted Conan Doyle bring him back from the grave. Studio execs routinely slice and dice films both great and small. Nonetheless, none of these people put in the sweat equity to claim the work as their own. The creator owns the work and can do whatever whenever.

  • TV & FG

    It’s not a question (in my mind) of if the fans should be allowed to dictate what gets put into a film or TV show. It’s a question of whether or not once the show or film is made and absorbed by the public conciousness if the creator should re-edit it.

    Of course they are allowed to, there’s nothing to stop them from doing so, it’s really a question of whether or not they should.

  • “even though the screenwriter has said didn’t write the story with that intent”

    That’s foolish on his part since he adapted the novel where that was the case.

    “and Harrison Ford has gone on record claiming that Scott had agreed to abandon that notion during filming.”

    Sounds like smart directing. Since Deckard is unaware he’s a replicant, it makes sense to have the actor unaware as well.

  • Stephen Daugherty

    The question is how we deal with long-term creative works, especially thoses that straddle a technological divide like those mentioned. I agree with archiving the originals, making them available. At the same time, I can understand Lucas’s chagrin with being asked to bring out the originals. To him, it must be like showing people your pimped out caddy and then having folks want to see the old busted Chevy in the back. But I can understand the sentiments there, too.

    The real answer is nobody strictly owns a story. The fans should understand when an artist in the midst of creating an ongoing series makes modifications for the sake of continuity and to fit with newer entries. The artist should understand that some parts of the story remain iconic, and should be treated carefully.

  • I hereby apologize, Episode IV of this release does not contain “Episode IV – A New Hope” in the scroll at the top of the film. Interesting.