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 the original film, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, they will receive not just the 2004 updated version but 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 very few, if any, people will actually complain about. It probably doesn’t really change anything, maybe the way society see 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 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. How about that, 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.

The vast majority of fans however balk at the notion that Han Solo didn’t shoot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina. 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’s 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,” as well as digitally enhancing many of E.T.’s facial expressions during the movie.

This re-imagining of movies has occurred before of course, many movies have been released as “director’s editions” that continue 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 did not occur 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 decided in the late 1950s that he wanted to colorize or change the ending to Casablanca, should he have been allowed to do it?

I think that 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? And, 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?