Over the weekend Ant-Man director Peyton Reed took to Twitter to ask for something Star Wars fans have been pestering people about since George Lucas first re-released the original Star Wars trilogy with a bunch of changes. He wants Lucasfilm to release an unaltered version of the original film on Blu-ray.
Please release a Blu-ray of the original, unmessed-with version of STAR WARS I loved when I was 13.
— Peyton Reed (@MrPeytonReed) September 22, 2017
George Lucas notoriously considered each iteration of the Star Wars special editions as the definitive version of the film, with new changes popping up every time the trilogy was released on a new format. He insisted that the special editions were the films he had originally wanted to make, and in 2004 he even went so far as to say he wouldn't re-release the unaltered versions on DVD.
The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it. ... I’m not going to spend the, we’re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore.
He eventually relented and released the unaltered cuts on DVD for a limited time in 2006, bundled with the 2004 special editions. There are plenty of them available on sites like eBay if anyone wants them. The films didn't arrive on Blu-ray until 2011, a single year before he sold the franchise to Disney, meaning the unaltered cuts never officially arrived in high definition.
But that was over five years ago. Why haven't Disney and Lucasfilm released those films, even if it's just to shut fans up? The short answer is that they can't. Not without collaborating with a different studio anyway.
Disney Can't Release It
Like the fact Disney can't have Marvel Studios make an X-Men film, it comes down to the issue of rights. Specifically the fact that 20th Century Fox, which distributed the six pre-Disney Star Wars films, still owns a bunch of the rights.
Fox owns the theatrical and physical distribution rights to Episodes I, II, III, V, and VI until May 2020 and all distribution rights to Episode IV (the very first Star Wars film) until the end of time. This is information that comes directly from Disney's 2013 annual report:
Prior to the Company's acquisition, Lucasfilm produced six Star Wars films (Episodes 1 through 6). Lucasfilm retained the rights to consumer products related to all of the films and the rights related to television and electronic distribution formats for all of the films, with the exception of the rights for Episode 4, which are owned by a third-party studio. All of the films are distributed by a third-party studio in the theatrical and home video markets. The theatrical and home video distribution rights for these films revert to Lucasfilm in May 2020 with the exception of Episode 4, for which these distribution rights are retained in perpetuity by the third-party studio.
That paragraph also explains that Disney currently holds the rights to TV broadcasts and 'electronic distribution' (which includes digital sales and streaming) for everything except Episode IV.
The reasons for this are probably down to how Star Wars was originally made. Before the first film came out franchising wasn't really a thing, and because Fox had doubts about the eventual success of Star Wars Lucas was able to keep all rights to sequels. Then Star Wars became the huge success, and to this day is still the third highest grossing film of all time when you adjust for inflation.
According to Tom Pollock, Lucas's lawyer at the time, Fox wanted a sequel, but because Lucas owned the rights to a sequel (with plans to self-finance production and zero obligation to make it for Fox) a deal was struck. Fox would get theatrical and distribution rights to the film for seven years, and Lucas got all the merchandising rights back. According to Pollock the same kind of deal between Fox and Lucas was made for subsequent Star Wars films.
But because the very first film was paid for by Fox, without any sort of special deal in place (because why would there be?) everything belongs to them. There's always the chance Disney will attempt to purchase the rights to Episode IV from Fox after 2020, but that's a different story entirely.
There's nothing stopping Disney from remastering the original cuts of Empire and Jedi then releasing them on digital storefronts like iTunes or Amazon, and then again on Blu-ray in three years time, but without the original it seems a bit pointless.
Disney Might Not Even Want To Release It
One of the rumoured to be in the Lucasfilm/Star Wars sale was that Disney couldn't go back and retcon anything George Lucas was involved in. That means no deciding the prequels didn't exist, or reversing course and declaring the original unaltered films are the canon versions. The EU was apparently fair game, since Disney has already disavowed everything that was released before it purchased the franchise, but the rest? That was reportedly there to stay.
When asked about it at this year's Star Wars Celebration in Orlando, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy completely shot down the idea that she would even attempt to make changes to Lucas's work. She didn't acknowledge any legal clauses that would prevent her, or anyone else, from doing so, but it's clear that things are staying as they are.
“I wouldn’t touch those, are you kidding me? [laughs] Those will always remain his.”
Alternatively you can listen to her response here (15:30).
In another interview, however, Kennedy denied there were plans to restore and re-release the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy, though she did confirm there are no agreements in place preventing that from happening. Someone could change their mind in the future, but as head of Lucasfilm she knows what's happening behind the scenes. So it's not happening anytime soon.
Restoring the films to 1080p (and 4K) would cost money, and while some would shout about how releasing the films would be like printing money it's still an investment Disney would need to make. It's obviously not against restoring the special edition cuts since we know a 4K version of Episode IV's special edition exists, but the originals are another thing entirely. Especially since there's the whole rights issue to take into consideration.
For now, you're stuck with the DVD quality versions or the legally-dubious fan fan-made 'Despecialised Editions'. Just one word of advice, don't watch the DVDs with a 4K upscaling enabled. They look like shite. And so do the prequels.