Feeling the Force

January 31, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away that Star Wars first glowed on the big screen. In 1977, Hollywood viewed Star Wars as a strange film. The first treatment was turned down by Universal Studios and United Artists. 20th Century Fox took it reluctantly.

Although few predicted it, Star Wars and its sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, turned out to be among the biggest blockbusters of all times, earning $1.3 billion in box office sales and another $3 billion in licensing fees.

The Star Wars trilogy has been available on video for years. Now its creator, George Lucas, wants another generation to see the films in theaters. Lucas convinced 20th Century Fox to foot the bill for updating and perfecting the films.

GEORGE LUCAS, Star Wars Creator: There were various things, especially in the original film, that I wasn’t satisfied with special effects shots that never really were finished scenes that I wanted to include that couldn’t have been included for some reason, mostly money and time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The cost, about $15 million, for the trilogy is only $5 million more than the budget for the original Star Wars. Now, there’s a new digital sound track, updated special effects, and even a few new scenes. This character, Jabba the Hut, was supposed to appear in the first film, but a lack of money and technology forced Lucas to cut the scene. Today, computer wizardry has brought Jabba back.

JOSEPH LETTERI, Visual Effects Supervisor, Star Wars Special Edition: The ultimate goal is to make it look like Jabba was on the set talking to Harrison Ford, and we just photographed it. This is the original plate that George shot, so the plan was for us to remove this actor and replace him with Jabba. He had to be physically in that space where this actor was doing all the same things in a similar kind of style.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the years since Star Wars Hollywood has grown addicted to special effects and enamored with the box office returns that come from these films. One Fox executive said he expected revenues from the new releases would be like Christmas for the company.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Twenty years ago linking games and toys to movies was done to promote the films. Today merchandising is big business and can make as much money as the movie. The Star Wars action figures are the most popular toys for young boys, and for grown-ups, there’s a life-size storm trooper with a $5,500 price tag.

CHILD: Don’t shoot. Push the “A” button. Push the “A” button.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Star Wars CD-ROMs, another Lucas creation, is among the top four producers of video games, Star Wars, more than 20 to date, put out by Bantam, consistently make the best seller list, and there are hundreds of Web sites related to Star Wars.

All told, Star Wars has racked up an estimated $4 billion in sales of merchandise. Star Wars has seeped so far into our culture that the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is mounting a major exhibit scheduled to open in the fall. Long lines formed early this morning at theaters around the country as the new and enhanced Star Wars trilogy hit the big screen.

Lucas is already looking beyond the re-release of the trilogy and is working on a new set of Star Wars films, three so-called sequels which will explain the beginning of the Star Wars myth.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lucas, who hasn’t directed a move since Star Wars, has promised to direct the first of the new trilogy, but movie goers will have to wait until 1999 for the first one. The last won’t be completed until 2003, as Lucas and his colleagues attempt to keep the force with us for years to come.