Power of the Force

‘Star Wars’ die-hards brave the elements, ridicule
to be the first in line for the film’s opening —
and to raise a little money for charity, too

Special to the State Press Magazine

The Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood is famous for the celebrity handprints and footprints in the Forecourt of the Stars outside.

But the footprints about 50 feet away from them are currently getting most of the attention.

Since April 7, about 250 Star Wars fans have been taking turns standing in line at movie houses on both coasts, determined to be among the world’s first frenzied folks to see Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. They won’t get their wish until May 19, when the first all-new Star Wars film in 16 years will make its debut in 2,500 theaters nationwide.

That wish is not the only one at stake, however. By standing, sitting and sharing their Star Wars memories, these fans are also raising money to help make kids’ dreams come true. For every hour they spend in line, each is making at least 25 cents in pledges that will go toward the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which grants wishes to seriously ill children.

Begin landing your troops

The fans have made the spot their own. They have had to obtain insurance and permits from the city of Los Angeles. In addition to police protection, a life-size, cardboard Imperial stormtrooper stands guard over them, day and night. They have commandeered a payphone, (callers are greeted with “Countingdown!”) and Dell has even donated a laptop computer, from which they maintain starwars.countingdown.com. A Web cam constantly updates with fresh views of the scene.

Rarely have people standing in line for a movie experienced — or generated — such excitement before the show begins. They are objects of public curiosity, receiving all manner of reactions from passersby.

“Absolute shock and surprise” is the most common, though, according to organizer Phillip Nakov.

“But then when they realize what we’re doing it for, not only for the film but also raising money for the Starlight Foundation, somehow it just completely justifies it in their mind.”

“There’s one or two nutballs that will walk by and make some disparaging remark, but we have a very, very strong team and very, very dedicated team, and it’s going to take a lot to really break their spirit.”

The attention fans receive is not always from the friendly side of the Force. Mitch Albom, a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press, wrote an April 11 column blasting the countingdown.com crew:

“They will go weeks without bathing, sleeping against walls. And for one reason: the new Star Wars movie.”

Albom’s column made no mention of the group’s involvement with the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Even Jay Leno has joined in the fray, making the fans’ eagerness a recurring topic in his opening monologue on The Tonight Show.

“Everyone is standing in line in shifts, is able to do as much as they possibly can do for the line, at the time that they are able to donate that time,” Nakov said. “No one is sleeping against a wall, and everyone is able to take hygiene breaks and bathroom breaks.”

“People have their own opinions, but I find it hard to criticize a group that’s been raising money for the Starlight Children’s Foundation,” said Peter Genovese, astudent at one of the California State University schools.

But Nakov, speaking for his fellow fans in line, said none of the criticism matters.

“Many people say that it’s actually more comfortable there than it is at home, in terms of creature comforts,” he said.

Indeed, Nakov the crew has computers, DVD players and fresh popcorn ever at their disposal.

Genevese said the best part of standing in line is the camaraderie.

“I think it’s being with all these fans,” he said. “We’re almost like a family now. We’re just having a lot of fun doing it.”

The art major joined Countingdown.com only recently, after stumbling upon the Web site in January. “I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “I saw all three special editions at the Chinese Theater.”

The original Star Wars trilogy was restored and re-released in 1996 with new footage.

Genovese said he can’t see how anyone would criticize people who are raising money to benefit children.

“How can you go wrong with that? Seeing Star Wars is the icing on the cake,” Genovese said.

Then there are the celebrity guests. Not long after lining up, the line was paid a visit by eight-year-old actor Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace.

In the Star Wars films, Anakin is a gifted Jedi who is corrupted by the dark side of the Force and becomes the evil Darth Vader.

Nakov missed the encounter with Lloyd, but fellow organizer Lincoln Gasking was on the clock when one of the luckiest kids in the world dropped by for a visit.

“He’s just a really great guy and he handed out lollipops for everyone and was really interested in what we were doing with the Starlight Foundation,” the Melbourne, Australia native said.

Gasking said it was “very, very cool” to hang out with the young star, who enjoyed watching Park Wars, a spoof of The Phantom Menace teaser trailer that uses characters from South Park.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have seen the movie, and they said he was brilliant,” Gasking said.

A few days later, those in line received another visit. This time, it was not an actor, but a prop from The Phantom Menace: the double-bladed lightsaber shaft used by Ray Park, who plays the villainous Sith lord Darth Maul in the film. Out came the cameras, Nakov said.

“The fans went nuts over it,” he said. He added that other surprises are in store for the Stand-A-Thon participants.

A day long remembered

Friday, Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm made the announcement many Star Wars fans have been waiting to hear: They will, after all, allow advance ticket sales for The Phantom Menace, beginning 3 p.m. eastern daylight time (11 a.m. here in the Valley) May 12 “at those theatres and ticket outlets in the United States and Canada that offer advance ticketing.” To discourage scalping, they said, each customer will be limited to purchasing 12 tickets.

The decision reportedly came after weeks of discussion between Fox, Lucasfilm and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).

“Theatre owners have agreed to make every reasonable effort to first accommodate those fans already standing in line,” the announcement said.

The announcement apparently changes nothing for those already in line.

“We’re still going to be here,” Gasking said. “We’re still going to be in line whether we’ve got tickets or not.”

The Stand-A-Thon

Planning for the event began nearly a year ago, when the now-famous theatrical trailers “A” and “B” were a just gleam in George Lucas’ eye and a fan’s far, far away fantasy.

It was Gasking, Nakov and Tim Doyle who came up with the idea to organize a line. Then came the idea to make all the effort support a worthy cause.

The Stand-A-Thon.

“I thought it was a perfect fund-raising idea for sunny Southern California,” Starlight Children’s Foundation Executive Director Laurie Goldman said. “It was just enough off-the-wall. I thought it had potential for raising a lot of money.”

How much money?

“Initially we thought maybe $40,000 per line,” she said. “But they’re very ambitious, and their goal is $100,000 for the three lines in California.”

Countingdown.com has three other lines, one at the Mann’s Village Theater in Westwood, Calif., one at San Francisco’s Coronet Theater and one at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. Each has about 250 people participating and taking pledges, Nakov said.

Pledges start at 25 cents per hour spent in line, Goldman said.

Last week, more than 100 fans set up camp outside the UA Galaxy 9 theater in Garland, Texas. “Countdown Dallas” is raising money to benefit Hope Cottage, a nonprofit, nonsectarian United Way-affiliated pregnancy and adoption center. That line is not affiliated with Countingdown.com, though there is a link to the Dallas group’s Web site at http://www.countingdown.com. Their full story is available at http://www.countdowndallas.com on the Internet.

A bright center to the universe

Scottsdale resident and Star Wars writer Michael A. Stackpole doesn’t find it hard to believe that fans of the Force would stand up for something they believe in.

“I think it’s a great idea, and really indicative of the sort of folks who are Star Wars fans,” he said. “It’s wonderful that folks would think of making gifts to charity part of this whole festival atmosphere.”

Stackpole sees nothing wrong with devotion to the Star Wars movies, either.

“It’s a story with universal mythic elements in it, which means folks can understand it easily,” he said. “The nobility of the heroes and the evil of the villains is something we can be attracted to or repulsed by.

And the Star Wars saga is packed with heroes and villains. Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda represent the positive side of the Force, an energy field created by all living things. Darth Vader and the evil Emperor Palpatine represent the dark side of the Force.

Stackpole thinks the new trilogy of films, beginning with The Phantom Menace, will continue that tradition. Episode II is expected to be released in 2002 and Episode III in 2005, continuing the tradition of three-year intervals between films in a trilogy.

“The story is one we’ve heard many times before, but in Star Wars it was put together in such a way to be new and fresh,” Stackpole added.

He said the appeal of Star Wars ranges from large groups of fans, like those already in line to see the movie weeks before it opens, to the smaller, more intimate circles of friends who wish they could be there.

“People just recognize all the icons so easily now, and love all of it,” he said.

And the fan base has changed dramatically since the original film’s initial opening.

“I took off from work and saw the 11 a.m. showing of Star Wars on the day it was released in Burlington, Vt. (in 1977),” Stackpole said. “There were all of 17 of us in the theater. After that, it was long lines, but we’d seen it first.

“Right from the opening scene, we knew it was like nothing else we’d ever seen. And when Darth Vader shows up, wow. One of the best entrances in cinema ever.”

A gathering of forces

However the heroes and evildoers of The Phantom Menace make their entrance, movie houses across the country will be packed on May 19. An official “Star Wars Celebration,” April 30-May 2 at Denver’s Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, is expected draw crowds in excess of 10,000. Guests include Lloyd, Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Ray Park (Darth Maul) and The Phantom Menace novelization author Terry Brooks.

Put down those phones — tickets to the huge convention are long gone.

Many cities are even holding official charity preview screenings.

But the countingdown.com and Starlight Children’s Foundation Stand-A-Thon continues at full Force.

“There’s always something going on, even in the wee hours of the morning,” Genovese said. “There’s just so many people walking by.”

Besides being the focus of the Detroit Free Press column and the butt of Leno’s jokes, the line has been featured on “Good Morning America,” “CBS Morning News” and “The Howard Stern Show.”

Gasking said he had no idea how much attention the lines would draw.

“I thought some media might turn up a couple of days before the release,” he said.

But he was astonished to find reporters from as far away as Taiwan and Singapore approaching him for interviews.

“Shows how far and wide-ranging Star Wars is,” he said.

A younger Yoda makes an appearance in Star Wars: Episode One. (courtesy Lucasfilm)

Star Wars fans such as Lincoln Gasking were delighted when Episode One star Jake Lloyd paid a visit to the Countingdown line at Mann’s Chinese Theatre on April 14. (photo courtesy Countdown Productions)

Lloyd signs movie posters and other Star Wars memorabilia for fans waiting in line at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. (photo courtesy Countdown Productions)

Internet-savvy fans find hidden details in the latest trailers

Trailer “C-60”

Special to the State Press Magazine

Hungry for even more images from Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace? Then you’re not done downloading yet, young Jedi. Not until you’ve checked out Trailer “C-60.”

But beware the Dark Side. This trailer, just over two minutes long and cobbled together from images exclusive to the March 28 60 Minutes episode featuring George Lucas, may contain things you don’t want to see. At least until May 19.

Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned. Not afraid? You will be….you will be.

Unlike the two previous trailers and its parent footage on 60 Minutes, Trailer “C-60” has no sound effects, just trusty John Williams music: track five from the Return of the Jedi Special Edition soundtrack. (What do you mean, you don’t have yours yet?)

Obi-Wan Kenobi faces off against Darth Maul. (photo captured from Trailer “B”)

What this teaser does have is a good, long look at Coruscant, the metropolitan capital world of the Galactic Republic, which was glimpsed only briefly in Return of the Jedi Special Edition. The floating landing platforms and immense skyscrapers in The Phantom Menace will put even the Big Apple to shame, if this footage is any indication.

Here we meet Palpatine, the senator from the troubled planet Naboo who is destined to rule the galaxy as emperor. He is seen waiting on a landing platform for his queen, Amidala, to arrive and seek help from the Republic Senate.

There is also a healthy dose of footage featuring a perilous pod race through the deserts of Tatooine. Here, young Anakin Skywalker lives with his mother, Shmi, and serves a Toydarian junk dealer named Watto.

We are treated to scenes of Anakin in his humble home, playfully leading Amidala away by the hand. The nosy astromech droid R2-D2 is not far behind. Maybe they need a chaperone; Amidala is rumored to be the mother by Anakin of the legendary Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa.

The starship hangar of Naboo’s Theed Palace hops to life as pilots scramble to their fighters during the Federation invasion. Queen Amidala herself is right in the thick of battle, blasting scrawny Federation battle droids as two noble Jedi use their lightsabers to shield her…

Speaking of lightsabers, you will see an awesome three-way battle pitting Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice — someone named Obi-Wan Kenobi — against the menacing Sith lord Darth Maul.

The glow of lightsabers returning to the big screen can only mean that all is, once again, right with the world.

While not as thrilling or climactic as November’s teaser trailer (“A”) or the more recent March trailer (“B”), “C-60” is a fun jaunt through hyperspace. The quality of the trailer is iffy, however, even on the best of computers, and it lacks the punch of the other two and their plentiful sound effects. A lightsaber just isn’t a lightsaber without that glorious hum. The Star Wars saga has always worked on so many levels, not just visual delight, so the lack of dialogue hurts this trailer as well.

Finally, since the trailer is not an official Lucasfilm production, not even the price of admission to Wing Commander will earn you a chance to see it on the all-important big screen.

This homespun trailer was created by Paul Ens of TheForce.net.

Obi-Wan Kenobi faces off against Darth Maul. (photo captured from Trailer “B”)