The Fandom Menace
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 Menacewhich won't open till May 21was 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.
"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 spoilersinformation about a film that would basically ruin the experience of seeing it if you were infected with the knowledgehas 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 trilogyand, 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 philosophyJedis don't take revengeLucas 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."
The culture of obsession, what the Japanese call the otaku, has long been within the purview of the geek, the computer hacker, the Dungeons & Dragons player. But in the pantheon of obsessed fans, Star Wars, also known as the Holy Trilogy, is perhaps the most far-reaching.
The Net has focused that obsession. A look at any of the sites reveals a high level of fanaticism. One site features Star Wars physics (theforce.net). Exactly how fast does the Millennium Falcon go? (Apparently, 1,200,000 times the speed of light.) Another site features animated 10-minute shorts using Star Wars action figures.
Recent hype has allowed would-be filmmaker Ernie Cline to drum up support and ultimately money for his script, Fanboys, about a group of twentysomethings from Ohio who go on a road trip to break into Skywalker Ranch in California so that their terminally ill friend can see a cut of The Phantom Menace before he dies.
"I heard these urban legends about these guys in the '80s who broke into Skywalker Ranch to see missing scenes of the first Star Wars," says the 26-year-old Cline. "I worked at a local ISP, so I was on the Internet every day, I was aware of all the interest and activity on the Internet, so I thought this idea could work." Cline even relied on satellite shots of Skywalker Ranch that he found on the Web.
Lucas has been invaded in other ways online. Last month, someone sold an allegedly stolen 35mm print of the two-minute Phantom trailer through online auction site eBay.com for $405. (Lucasfilm would not comment.)
But with the film set to open this spring, fans are already moving on to speculation over episode two. Rumors abound over casting and plotline. (The young male actors from Dawson's Creek are allegedly up for the role of Anakin Skywalker, a/k/a Darth Vader, and martial arts superstar Jet Li has been mentioned as a candidate for Boba Fett, galactic bounty hunter extraordinaire.) "That's where my real focus is now," says Knowles. "I can't wait to see what I'm going to uncover next."
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