What Re-Releases of Star Wars can Teach Us About Art and Product Management

The other day I noticed this tweet fly by in the twittersphere

Was this a complaint? In light of the fact the internet was rife with complaints about changes to the movies in the Blue Ray release of the original trilogy, I suspect so. While I do harbor Lucas a small amount of ill will for the disaster that was Star Wars Episodes I, II and III the more I think about his re-releases the more I think he is doing something rather interesting by adopting ideas from the software world, challenging notions of art in Hollywood and striving to constantly keep an old asset relevant. Considering all this, I also think there are lesson here for all of us. So, accepting the fact that half the world out there will think I’m wrong, and the other half will think this is just about extracting money from fans… here are nonetheless some thoughts.

Keeping an old asset relevant

Unlike the rest of Hollywood, I think Lucas should be applauded. Whether you think his updates are good or bad, he is, at least, trying to add value to his products long after they leave the theater. I actually remember enjoying watching one of the updated re-releases and trying to see if I could spot all the differences between the original Star Wars Episode IV (v1.0) and the newer Star Wars Episode IV (v1.1), it was fun…

But Lucas’s updates feel all the more interesting and relevant an experiment given the movie’s genre. There is a real risk that at some point the special effects in Star Wars are simply going to become so dated that the whole things will feel massively campy (some might argue that’s already happened – maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia), but integrating in newer effects might help prolong the movie’s relevance. I’m quite confident that there are lots of children out there who, despite their parents fanatic devotion to original Star Wars trilogy, can’t get over the fact that the special effects feel out of date. Maybe it’s easier for them to engage the movie when they see a little CGI? I’m not saying these releases are necessarily successful in hitting this target, but at least he is trying. There are lots of products (not to mention websites) that I wish the creators had gone back and updated… Sometimes the changes make it worse, but often the product was headed for obsolescence anyway, so the changes kept it relevant.

Learning from the Software World

Of course, if you don’t like the new versions one thing I think Lucas has done that is savvy (and frankly, helps line his pockets) is borrow from the software world and functionally “version” the first Star Wars Trilogy. Yes, once again the initial release of the Blue Ray dvd will only have changes he is made (maybe it will include the original version as well) but eventually the original “classic” version will be released on DVD. As I outlined above, all this means is that there will be Star Wars Episode IV (v1.0), the late 1990’s Star Wars Episode IV (v1.1) and now the 2011 Star Wars Episode IV (v1.2). However, unlike many software vendors, Lucas is not ultimately forcing anyone to use v1.2. If you want to stick to v1.0, I’m confident it will be released on the format of your choice eventually. It’s like playing some of your favourite video games. Sure Civ V will come along, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play Civ III (or, obviously the best of them all, Alpha Centauri) anymore.

Of course the benefit of this is twofold. First, maybe everybody hates v1.1 and v1.2 (although I bet young fans really don’t care) and so sit around talking about it and cursing Lucas. Of course, this is still a coup. Imagine 30 years later, people are still sitting around talking passionately about your movie? That’s a pretty good outcome. Better still maybe there are Star Wars camps! The v1.0 camp is obviously largest, but I bet you’ll find v1.1 and v1.2 defenders. Now we have hours of endless debate! The fan base continues to be energized! Genius.

Challenging Notions of Art

But I also love that Lucas challenges peoples’ notion movies as art. The danger with the non-oral mediums is that the art itself becomes stale. Why can’t, or shouldn’t a movie evolve in the same way a spoken story might evolve as it is passed down? Why is it that a movie has to stay frozen in time just because it can?

There is a lot of art that we don’t treat that way.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (v1.0) can, frankly, no longer be seen, all we watch now are derivative works based on the text we happened to have captured, and even then, who knows how Shakespeare himself actually wanted it to be acted and directed (I’m sure someone is about to tell me I’m wrong on that front). But regardless, none of this has stopped us from enjoying the literally 1000s of Romeo and Juliet remakes that have been made since the bard wrote the “original” (which we all concede was itself derivative).

Even in the movie world we don’t let things lie. Endless remakes are made – sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. Isn’t Lucase fundamentally doing the same thing? I’d rather watch a remake with the original Han Solo than without…

Part of the joy of a great story is the ability to retell it. To re-interpret it and to make it relevant to new people. Maybe that is all Lucas wants to do. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to the original. But maybe by evolving his art, Lucas is creating a bigger audience and enabling his story to touch more, or at least new, people. Thinking of George Lucas the artist, I think I respect that.

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Jeff Ribeira

So I saw the new release as I was browsing around Best Buy the other day, and my initial thoughts were definitely leaning towards this being a money-motivated thing. While I think you have some great thoughts here, many of which I agree with, particularly the idea that an artist, as the creator, should be able to do whatever the heck he/she wants with a piece of work, film or otherwise. Forget the critics, it’s your stuff! Now, I can’t judge completely though because I haven’t seen these reported “changes” but to me, when any dvd or blueray is rereleased with things like “never before seen footage” and/or “over 25 hours of new bonus features” (and essentially all of them do nowadays, not just the Star Wars franchise) I feel it’s more of a marketing ploy than anything else. A brilliant marketing tool mind you for a variety of reasons (I mean, now my kids can have more of a vested interest, and if it’s “never before seen” who doesn’t want to see that?), one which I myself have chosen to indulge in more than once. Unfortunately though, I think any true art has long been off the grid in the post-release motion picture biz.