.: Request Denied: Lucas Refuses to Co-Operate with Government Film Preservation Organizations
This is something that I have been privately investigating for the last 12 months, and sadly it seems my worse suspicions have been confirmed. While Lucas refuses to restore the original versions and has expressed his desire to see them never released again and entirely forgotten, some optimists see hope in the coming century: public domain. Eventually, Star Wars will become public domain. It is pointed out that the Library of Congress is the best source outside of Lucasfilm, since they professionally store and maintain historical films. They received prints of the original trilogy in their copyright depository at the time of their release, for one. Most importantly, in 1987 and 1988, George Lucas and other filmmakers went to Congress to tesify on the need for the protection of films, both against companies wishing to alter them and against the forces of time. Lucas expressed that historic films are our cultural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations. See his speech here.
While Lucas was not successful in persuading the U.S. to extend "moral rights" to films, there was at least one positive result: The National Film Registry. This was a government organization created to collect and preserve important films in a special branch of the Library of Congress. How the NFR would work is that every year 25 films which had significant artistic or cultural value would be selected for inclusion and the organization would acquire archival prints of said films, stored in state of the art facilites which would preserve them for the future. Its first year of operation was 1989 and among those first 25 films selected that year was one noteworthy to us: 1977's Star Wars. Last year, 2010, they also selected Empire Strikes Back.
I have spoken much about this fact. It's important that a professional film storage facility is keeping care of our beloved Star Wars films, because it sure seems like Lucasfilm isn't. In 70 years when the films become public domain, we may discover that Lucasfilm didn't maintain them or didn't restore them and so the original materials are no longer useful. According to one insider I spoke to, the original negative has already faded to the point where it is not possible to produce prints that looked the way they did in 1977. The Library of Congress National Film Registry, with better facilities and better maintenance, might be the last reservoir, as any privately owned prints out there without such resources would long ago have faded away by then.
All seemed well, until I received an email earlier this year from a professional film restorationist. I cannot print his name, as he volunteered under secrecy, but he is known in the field. And, he mentioned, regularly did business with the Library of Congress in their preservation efforts. We got to talking about public prints, and how Lucas has suppressed their screening. I have omited certain names and information for privacy issues:
"Written into George Lucas' contract with Fox is the line stating that
any prints of the original that are found must be hunted up and destroyed,"
he said. "As a result, film collectors are very loath to disclose where
any prints of any Lucas films are at all. There are a few IB Technicolor Star
Wars prints in private hands." He went on to state. "I'm not sure which contract
it is. I have no idea whether it's public record or not. I do know that
in the early 2000s there were a Technicolor festival in LA, and Star Wars was
announced as a title. After trying to legally clear the title through Fox,
the organizers of the festival were threatened with having the print confiscated
and destroyed. They told the organizers of the festival that it was a line in
Lucas' contract. The organizers were frantic to get rid of the print they
had so that Fox couldn't get to it."
He further mentions: "I can also tell you that, due to the high contrast of Technicolor prints, the possibility of preserving the original version from an original [Technicolor] print is very difficult. A certain dye transfer print [of Star Wars] was deposited at the Library of Congress for a while for just this purpose, and it was not possible to copy it. Alas, the version that was put in the National Film Registry is the 1997 version."
Now, here is where the scandal starts. Lucasfilm confiscating original prints is nothing new. That has happened many times. But what was scandalous is the information that the NFR did not have the original. As far as their own public registry shows, they do. It has never been reported by them or by Lucasfilm that this situation ever changed. And it is especially disturbing that they would have the 1997 version if their record showed it was the original. It would also entirely invalidate their integrity. I inquired further, and this is what the source reported:
"I personally held a [Technicolor] print [of Star Wars] in my hands that was delivered to Library of Congress for copying. It stayed there for some time before it was returned to the owner... They could not copy it accurately," because of the contrast. "Most preservation is still done photochemically. A film like Star Wars would need to be copied at 4K and then dropped back to film, and the prospect of doing that was and still is too expensive for LoC. I have not personally seen the print of Star Wars that was deposited at LoC, but I was told by LoC employees that the print on deposit in the National Film Registry is the 1997 reissue version."
He elaborates: "I was told that Lucas dragged his feet and hemmed and hawed that Star Wars needed restoration work before it could go on deposit, and then what was sent was the 1997 version. All I know is what I was told by the Library itself. I'm sure that no one who works there will go on record publicly and say this, but I was told this by the top people who work there."
He goes on: "I can't verify that it's true, because the Registry prints aren't rentable without clearance from Lucas, and Lucas hasn't given permission for *anyone* to exhibit Star Wars theatrically unless it's a special occasion for some years. The last I saw one was in 2005 or 2006, when Fox rented a reissue print to a place where I was working. It was a special event."
So, it seems that in the early 1990s when they requested a print Lucas dragged his feet about restoration work (probably because they were starting to work on the Special Edition), and when they finally offered them one it was the 1997 Special Edition. Meanwhile, a privator donor leant a 1977 Technicolor print for archiving, but it couldn't be copied and was returned.
Finally, as an aside he adds: "The Registry is basically useless anyway, because the prints are all on restricted access by the copyright owners, and so you basically can't see them unless you go to DC and look at them on a film viewer, and I'd bet that some of the registry films have only one print, so no viewing prints are available. That's the goofy copyright law, one of the other things I rant and rave about a lot."
The last point is especially salient. Copyright doesn't work the way it was originally intended to, because no human being owns films in the U.S. (moral rights don't exist), instead their ownership is measured by copyright, which is not limited to the author's life, but instead owned by corporations who use it for profit. While copyrights are supposed to be finite with all artwork ultimately owned by the public, interest lobbying by corporations has continued to extend copyright, as ownership of movie titles is very lucrative to the companies that own them. As such, although LoC and its NFR branch preserve many titles, they are ultimately powerless to stop their owners from abusing them. This is because motion pictures are not legally protected by government under cultural heritage protection law, the way other artworks are. When I asked the NFR about their powers to actually enforce their mandate, I was told the following by Steve Leggit, LoC liason:
"We always recognize and seek to ensure preservation of the original theatrical release version, per the legislation (which says the Registry version is "the version of a film first published"), though we might also try to obtain other versions as well," he wrote. I asked him about the print of 1980's Empires Strikes Back that is to be included, but on the matter of the extent of their powers, he could only say: "After the recent selection, we will in the near future request that Fox/Lucasfilm strike and send us a new 35mm print of the original 1980 release version. We do that for all the studio titles, and the studios do cooperate."
The studios do co-operate. But they aren't bound to. They just have, so far.
Not so for Lucasfilm. As I would find out, my contact was correct. Lucasfilm refused to co-operate in sending them the original version for preservation.
Earlier this year, a colleague (Peter Lopez) and I planned a trip to Washington D.C. to inspect the original 35mm prints there and verify this claim. It was a rather sensational story, but I could not in good conscience print it unless I could verify its accuracy officially. Before we could depart, a friend of mine, who has chosen not be named (his originaltrilogy.com handle inspired the name of the "Humdinger glitch", which is a transfer error in the 2004 DVD) told me he would be in D.C. soon. We agreed that he could approach the Library of Congress as a researcher on behalf of me. His presence was not needed, as it turns out. The Library of Congress admitted that the National Film Registry was not successful in obtaining the original print from Lucasfilm, and that Lucasfilm had attempted to persuade them to preserve the 1997 Special Edition 35mm instead. They also had dire news on the copyright depository prints.
The following is the response from the Library of Congress' librarian Zoran Sinobad:
"While both STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) are on the National Film Registry, the Library has not yet acquired new prints of either one. When the request was made for STAR WARS, Lucasfilm offered us the Special Edition version. The offer was declined as this was obviously not the version that had been selected for the Registry. We have not yet requested a print of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, added to the Registry late last year.
"The Library of Congress does hold the original release versions of STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, but these 35mm prints were acquired as copyright deposits in March 1978, October 1980, and June 1983 respectively. All three are classified as archival masters and as such cannot be accessed for viewing/research. The existing condition reports for STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (there is no report for RETURN OF THE JEDI) indicate that the former has minor scratches but is in good shape overall, while the latter has extreme color fading. We also have an additional 35mm print of the original STAR WARS (received June 1979) with English subtitles for the deaf.
"If you have any further questions, you are welcome to contact Lynanne Schweighofer, our Preservation Specialist and in-house Star Wars expert, at [XXXXX@loc.gov].
Moving Image Section
Library of Congress"
So there it is. The National Film Registry can at least be commended for declining the offer to store the Special Edition, as it conflicts with their mandate. So, it seems, they never had a print ever. But, the news may be even worse: not only does the NFR not have an original Star Wars print, they don't have any version. Of course, do you really think they will be provided with a 1980 print of Empire Strikes Back? Of course not.
This represents a very scandalous line cross, in my opinion. Lucas, a proponent of film preservation , has said recently that he would like to restore the originals but can't pay for it, even though he is a billionaire. Yet when an outside organization from the federal government bodies of film preservation offer to foot the bill in the meantime, what does Lucas do? Try to get them to take the Special Edition.
Lucas is full of a lot of smoke and mirrors, methinks. The original version continues to rot while Lucasfilm continues to deny fully-paid-for preservations of the existing material. With Lucasfilm having a monopoly over the films, the U.S. government is helpless to stop the destruction of these films. Please, write to your congressman and get the United States government to include film under cultural heritage protection law.
What's especially contradictory is that Lucas is himself on the board of directors for The Film Foundation, "a non-profit organization established in 1990 by Martin Scorsese dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history." Perhaps his membership should be up for evaluation.