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 said to meet in front of the box office. So fans from all over town drove in to see him, to find out how the line will work, and to at last meet the guy whom they had seen only on the Internet. The line was his idea. Episode I won't open in Australia until later in the summer, so Gasking, one of three twentysomething men who run the site devoted to counting down the days, hours, minutes to things they're really excited about (the first countdown was to Titanic) cooked up the line. His plan to get into the first showing of the hardest-to-get-into film of the decade at the best theater in the world: wait in line forever. He even showed up 10 days before the month began, a week ago, to make sure he was the first. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be someone like him--a fan with a Web site.

During the past year, Episode I has given fledgling film-geek Web sites what the Gulf War gave CNN: instant credibility and importance. A few bands of wired, obsessive fanboys just happened to be hooked up to the right form of media at the right time, and their Web sites flourished and blossomed into bankable media properties. The convergence of Lucas' legendary secrecy and a carnivorous fan base made sites like Jedinet.com, TheForce.net, Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News, and, more recently, countingdown.com essential reads for anyone covering the film industry, in particular the Star Wars phenomenon. What began as a bunch of self-dubbed film geeks posting diatribes about stuff they thought was "cool" has now become media mini-empires. You can't read a Star Wars feature without tripping over a quote from Knowles, now a minor-league celebrity with a book deal and movie bit parts. A COPS parody produced for TheForce.net, featuring Stormtroopers harassing Jawas, landed special-effects novice Kevin Rubio a nice production deal. Phillip Nakov, one of Gasking's cofounder colleagues who lives in L.A., boasts that he and his partners plan to parlay their little venture into a "major portal site," the sort of buzz phrase that Silicon Valley venture capitalists love.

But the countingdown.com crew has been thrust into the major world of Hollywood, of studios and theater chains and the government of the second-largest city in the country. Their idea to stage a monthlong sit-in outside the most famous movie theater on earth hasn't exactly been easy. Gasking and his pals don't work for Mann Theaters and don't actually have tickets to the first show--or any show. In fact, Mann management won't even confirm that they'll be showing The Phantom Menace. It took months for Nakov to smooth over relations with Encino's WestStar Cinemas, which owns Mann Theaters, after some overeager fans posted the transcripts of conversations with Mann employees who had no idea how the line was going to work.

Then came the meeting fiasco when Gasking summoned his minions. In spite of the melee in front of the Chinese Theater, a dozen of his followers found each other, lingered in the crowd, got interviewed by a patronizing E! reporter who literally drooled at the sight of one particularly pasty-skinned fan in a Star Wars T-shirt. But nobody saw the man who was supposed to be organizing the line. Gasking never showed, or, rather, he showed but spent his time chasing after Courteney Cox instead of conducting a meeting.

And now Gasking's already sitting on the sidewalk, more than five weeks before the movie opens. He hasn't worked out how to manage the other hundreds of people planning to live on the sidewalk of Hollywood--or how he's going to ensure they get into the first show or anything--but he managed to get on TV news the moment his ass hit the concrete. Meanwhile, he and the other organizers have turned the line into a charity fundraiser, partnering up with the Starlight Foundation, which helps out seriously ill children. This maneuver has allowed countingdown.com to get a charity-event permit from the Los Angeles Police Department, granting them some leeway to sleep on the sidewalk without getting arrested for loitering.

Mike Chockley, the line coordinator for the Dallas contingent of countingdown.com (located on the Internet at starwars.fans.net/events/dallas/core.htm), has also turned to charity, raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every hour he and his line-mates spend in front of the UA Galaxy 9 theaters. Chockley, who will be taking time off from his job at Hotel Reservations Network to stand in line, has also made a deal with the Galaxy, convincing the theater to put up banners and posters, getting the word out to other fans willing to put their lives on hold for a few weeks. It makes sense for both sides: The fanatics who want to be among the first to see The Phantom Menace won't get hassled, and the Galaxy gets a little cheap publicity.

Chockley, 25, has been involved with countingdown.com since the beginning of the year, when he contacted the Web site to find out where the line would be forming in Dallas. He just wanted to be part of it, but ended up smack in the middle. He knows that the Dallas line will pale in comparison to the ones that will start in Los Angeles on Monday, but as long as he's there, it doesn't matter to him.

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