The Fandom Menace

Living on the sidewalk for a month. Sleeping with Wookiees. Thousand-dollar action figures. Think the new Star Wars is just a movie? You poor fool.

He also understands why Star Wars has endured and become even more powerful. Pretty much any theory or interpretation you throw at the original trilogy sticks, Chernoff says, describing that flexibility as "the hallmark of great art." It's The Iliad. It's the Bible. It's Flash Gordon without Flash Gordon. It's a '30s adventure serial. It's American Graffiti in outer space.

The fans, on the other hand, defy simplistic labels. You can't slap a catchall classification onto them. The Star Wars fan is not a "Wookieehead" or a "Warrior" or a "Trekkie" or an "Ackbarrian." The simple phrase "Star Wars fan" will do. Theories about their nature and devout allegiance are vast and strange, ranging from religious to Freudian to political. The holy trilogy turned on a light somewhere inside so many young people, people who grew up to become plumbers and directors and special-effects gurus, people who now run a piece of the world. They raise their own kids and write their own movies, and between 1977 and 1999, they helped mold our cultural landscape so that the traditional image of "geek" and "nerd" has forever been recast.

"Sci-fi fans are the silent majority," says Mark Altman, former editor of Sci-Fi Universe magazine and co-author of an upcoming movie about Trekkies. "The audience for this [genre] continues to grow and expand, the sleeping giant awakening. There's no telling how all-consuming this will become."

Take, for example, Ernie Cline. He, too, is a Star Wars fan and a rabid one at that, but he has a girlfriend, a real job at an Internet service provider, and a hobby writing screenplays. And he keeps it all in perspective. Last year he noticed the fan frenzy building on the Internet after Lucas, cloaked in secrecy, started filming Episode I in the desert of Tunisia. The fans mobilized. Leaks from the set provided daily fodder for budding Web sites. A simple snapshot of Ewan McGregor's hairdo would drive some fans nuts. The prices of action figures originally sold in the early '80s went through the roof (a $3 Jawa now goes for more than $300), and the fans finally had somewhere to channel their excitement. Another movie was going to happen.

"I heard of people who were really worried they might die; they were taking precautions so they wouldn't get run over by a truck before Episode I came out," Cline says from his home in Austin. "It's this huge motivating factor to stay alive."

Cline tapped into this idea and wrote a screenplay called Fanboys, not exactly your typical four-guys-in-a-van road movie: A Star Wars fan convinces his friends that he has a terminal illness and won't live to see the prequel. So the buddies pack up and journey across America with plans to break into Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, just to sneak a peak or at least read the script. Cline hasn't found funding for the movie yet, but he has captured his own slice of prequelmania. "It's the only time I've written a screenplay and gotten in Newsweek just for the idea," he says.

Unfortunately, the first film to bring sci-fi fandom into the mainstream will be about devotees of Star Trek, lifeforms often considered strange and wrong to the Star Wars fan. Altman, along with director Robert Meyer Burnett, wrote Free Enterprise, an independent feature likely to be released in June. It boasts a cast of Trekkies who find William Shatner, Captain Kirk from the original '60s series, as an alcoholic mess and help him get back on his feet.

But for now, as humans colonize city blocks and George Lucas starts making public appearances, Cline believes we're entering an age of relentless Lucasmania, a repeat of what America saw in the late '70s and early '80s. A new layer of mythology and lore will be slathered onto American culture in the coming years. Names like Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks will become pop flotsam, and everybody from preteens to Boomers will, he thinks, have an emotional stake in their story. Hell, there might be people living on the sidewalk in Hollywood for the next six years.

"We're at the tip of this iceberg for this new Star Wars mania," says Cline. "We're in for, like, seven or eight straight years of Star Wars."

The line, so far, has gone much more smoothly than the little "meeting" a few weeks ago. Then, Lincoln Gasking came to town and told everybody to meet him in front of the Chinese Theater at 6 p.m. Of course, he didn't realize that Drew Barrymore's Never Been Kissed was holding its premiere at exactly the same time, and a premiere at the Chinese is an all-day showstopper with crowds and limos and cameras and everything. Gasking was excited because he's from Melbourne, Australia, and since it was his first time in L.A., he sent an e-mail to all the fans on his mailing list, all the hundreds who've signed up through his Web site (countingdown.com) to join the monthlong lines in front of Mann's Chinese and Village theaters.

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