20 years later, George Lucas sends his classics back to the big screen

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated August 02, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — actually Los Angeles in 1977 — a 13-year-old named Dean Devlin waited in line for four hours to see Star Wars. ”I went in thinking it would be cool, but after the first scene I was screaming,” says Devlin. ”It was the single most important movie in my life.” Now, as Darth Vader would say, the circle is complete. Devlin is the producer of the intergalactic blockbuster Independence Day, a film that not only pays heavy homage to George Lucas’ magnum opus but, given its box office success, may very well pave the way for an even splashier-than-expected return of the Jedi.

Last month, in connection with the release of ID, Fox sent a 2-minute, 20-second trailer to theaters. The clip opens with the image of a small TV screen and a voice that says: ”For an entire generation people have experienced Star Wars this way…. On Presidents’ Day weekend, 1997, see the Star Wars trilogy again for the first time.” Needless to say, fans danced in the aisles at this teaser for the rerelease of Lucas’ classic series. ”We were honored to have [the trailer] before our film,” says Devlin. ”It made Independence Day an event.”

With ID racing toward the $300 million mark, the groundwork has been laid for a Wars renaissance. ”There’s no better time than now,” says Fox senior executive VP Tom Sherak. ”Star Wars is the mother of all sci-fi movies.”

Sherak has reason to cheerlead. Aside from the rerelease’s huge box office potential, Fox, along with every other studio, is looking to distribute Lucas’ next project: the long-awaited second trilogy in the Skywalker saga, planned for 1999. ”We’re going to do whatever we can to get the films,” says Sherak. ”When Lucas comes here, we won’t let him out of the room.”

For the rerelease, the films — Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) — have undergone a $10 million face-lift consisting of digitally remastered soundtracks, restored prints, and, most intriguingly, several minutes of never-before-seen footage that has been juiced up by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic. For example, the new Wars will feature a tete-a-tete between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt that was originally edited out because Lucas lacked the budget and time to portray Jabba properly. Similarly, Jedi will feature an enhanced cabaret sequence in Jabba’s palace. (Lucas wanted Elton John to write the score for the new scene, but the singer passed.) ”George wanted to go back and fix the things that have been bothering him,” says Lucasfilm spokesperson Lynne Hale, ”now that the technology has caught up.”

Of course, perfectionism may not be Lucas’ sole motivation. ”Everybody involved with Star Wars is going to walk away a winner,” says Ira Mayer, publisher of the trade magazine Entertainment Marketing Letter. Those winners include Pepsi, which recently inked a promotional deal with Lucas, valued at $2 billion, that allows Pepsi to use the film’s characters to push its Frito-Lay, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken products; current licensees, such as Galoob, whose best-selling line of Star Wars toys would receive a huge boost; and, of course, Lucas himself, who personally holds the merchandising rights, which means Lucasfilm gets a cut from the sale of every action figure and lunch box — quite a chunk of change considering such licensing has racked up more than $3 billion since ’77.