The Fandom Menace

Before the Prequels, Star Wars Fans Obsess Online

Last week, John Benson decided to post it.

It shouldn't be too much of a problem, he thought. Everyone already knew the whole thing. The other unofficial Star Wars sites had already posted so much info, he might as well beat them to the punch on this one. So after considerable contemplation, the twentysomething Benson, who's been a Star Wars fan as long as he can remember, typed a few commands into his computer. And soon the entire plot synopsis of George Lucas's long-awaited prequel to the Star Wars trilogy, The Phantom Menace—which won't open till May 21—was online at jedinet.com.

So much for clandestine operations. So much for Lucas and his nondisclosure agreements and trade secrets. If there's one thing you can't control, it's that explosive chemistry of fandom and technology.

Portrait of the robot as an object of obsession: R2D2 (unofficially) online
Javier Fernandez / theforce.net
Portrait of the robot as an object of obsession: R2D2 (unofficially) online

"We had all this information months ago," admits Benson, who started his site in March 1996. "All the other sites had it too."

But the question of whether to post spoilers—information about a film that would basically ruin the experience of seeing it if you were infected with the knowledge—has become for some a battle between the Dark Side and the Light Side.

"These Web sites seem to be fighting so hard to outdo each other, posting all that information," says John Klinger, 24, an avid fan who says he'd prefer there not be any sites than have the suspense spoiled.

Apparently, an employee of a promotions company hired by Lucasfilm had obtained the official plot summary, character sketches, and even some art, and leaked them to Star Wars fan sites all over cyberspace. The employee was eventually dismissed, though not necessarily because of the leak. "Some people try to make a name for themselves online by doing things like this," says Benson.

Way over in another corner of the Net, Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News (aint-it-cool-news.com), scrolls through the scores of e-mails he gets hourly. Most are from movie fans who may have heard something from a local paper or radio show about the upcoming movies. (Of the nine parts originally conceived by Lucas, episodes four through six are the Star Wars trilogy and one through three are forthcoming, beginning with The Phantom Menace.) Some are from people who work on the sets. Knowles, sometimes referred to as the Matt Drudge of Hollywood, has created a new model of muckraking that is now copied by other movie fan sites. And when it comes to Star Wars, Knowles may have the most information. The same week Benson posted the plot synopsis to The Phantom Menace, Knowles posted a review. He claims to have read the actual script.

"Official Lucasfilm policy is there is no way I could have gotten it," says Knowles. "Hey, I really don't care what they think. I know what I know."

"We haven't wanted to get into a situation where we confirm or deny anything," says Jeanne Cole of Lucasfilm about information posted on unofficial Web sites.

"Universal offered to fly me out to London last year to see the set of The Mummy," recounts Knowles. "But the real reason I went was to try and see people who were working on [The Phantom Menace]... I left all my information on my site, where I would be, and when. My second day there, someone was waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. He handed me the script. At first I wasn't sure if this was the real thing. Then he pulls out his nondisclosure form that Lucasfilm made him sign. So I sat there reading the script."

And the review? "It's a bit different," says Knowles. "It's not necessarily what people are expecting. But it's going to be fun as hell. It's got some darkness, but not that much. And it's actually got some slapstick. It's all good, though. Believe me."

There are still those who don't believe him, though, including the other fan sites. Knowles offers as proof the recent Vanity Fair cover story on the making of episode one.

"I didn't want to get scooped by Vanity Fair when I heard they were going to publish the opening crawl," he says, referring to the text that appears onscreen before each Star Wars movie. Knowles posted it the day before VF hit the stands. "I posted all three paragraphs of the crawl. Vanity Fair only had the first two. I will delight with joy if Lucas changes the third graph when the movie comes out."

While such a proposition may seem to give the fans too much power, it is not as outrageous given the incredibly wide fan base that has allowed Lucas to create his extended franchises (video games, comic books and novels based on the trilogy—and, of course, the toys). In fact, at least once before, Lucas made changes based on fans. After fans noticed that the original title for episode six, Revenge of the Jedi, didn't fit the Jedi philosophy—Jedis don't take revenge—Lucas changed the title to Return of the Jedi.

"Who isn't a fan?" says Knowles. "For a long time I used to think it was just the 16-to-34 generation. But my father, who literally lined up around the block with me when Star Wars opened, is also a fan and he's 52. It's like everyone from kids to older people. And it's not just the geeks. I get these Republican types who e-mail me. It's a very large cross section."

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