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Fan Films

Henry Jenkins, October 2001
Digital cinema advocates claim new production and editing technologies will democratize filmmaking -- Star Wars fan cinema is the proof. Shooting in garages and basements, rendering F/X on home computers, and ripping music from CDs and MP3 files, fans have created new versions of the Star Wars mythology that stand on their own terms alongside George Lucas's Hollywood blockbusters. In the words of 'Star Wars' or Bust director Jason Wishnow, "This is the future of cinema -- Star Wars is the catalyst." Ironically, the widespread circulation of Star Wars-related commodities has placed resources into the hands of a generation of emerging filmmakers in their teens or early twenties who want to talk back to the movie mogul whose works shaped their childhood imagination. They grew up dressing as Darth Vadar for Halloween, sleeping on Princess Leia sheets, battling with plastic lightsabers, and playing with Boba Fett action figures. Star Wars has become their "legend," and they are determined to remake it on their own terms.

More than 300 amateur Star Wars movies have appeared on the web to date, and the number is growing almost every day. Fans have always been early adapters of new media technologies; their fascination with fictional universes often inspires new forms of cultural production, ranging from costumes or fanzines to folk music and, now, digital cinema. Fans are the most active sector of the media audience, one that refuses to simply accept what it has been given, but rather insists on the right to become full participants. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been the first to realize the potentials of these new production tools and distribution venues, demonstrating to the rest of us what can happen in a world where anyone can make a movie and get it shown on the web.

In her book Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film, Patricia R. Zimmerman offers a compelling history of amateur filmmaking in the United States, examining the intersection between nonprofessional film production and the Hollywood entertainment system. Amateur film production emerged alongside the first moving pictures. However, the amateur film has remained, first and foremost, the "home movie" in several senses of the term: first, amateur films were exhibited primarily in private (and most often, domestic) spaces lacking any viable channel of distribution to a larger public; second, amateur films were most often documentaries of domestic and family life rather than attempts to make fictional or avant-garde films; and third, amateur films were perceived to be technically flawed and of marginal interest beyond the immediate family.

Digital filmmaking alters all of this -- the web provides an exhibition outlet that moves amateur filmmaking from private into public space; digital editing is far simpler than editing Super-8 or video and thus opens up a space for amateur artists to more directly reshape their material; and the home PC has even enabled the amateur filmmaker to directly mimic the special effects associated with Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars. These films remain amateur, in the sense that they are made on low budgets, produced and distributed in noncommercial contexts, and generated by nonprofessional filmmakers (albeit often by people who want entry into the professional sphere), yet many of the other classic markers of amateur film production have disappeared. No longer home movies, these films are public movies -- public in that, from the start, they are intended for audiences beyond the filmmaker's immediate circle of friends and acquaintances; public in their content, which involves the reworking of personal concerns into the shared cultural framework provided by popular mythologies; public in their aesthetic focus on existing in dialogue with the commercial cinema (rather than existing outside of the Hollywood system altogether); and public in the sense that they have attracted enormous media attention.

When Amazon introduced videotapes of George Lucas in Love, perhaps the best known work to emerge from this movement, it outsold Phantom Menace in its opening week. Some of the best fan filmmakers have already been absorbed into the commercial film industry, suggesting that this new amateur media sector may function as a training ground for the next Lucas or Spielberg. By lowering barriers of entry to the media marketplace, the new digital cinema will create a space where would-be filmmakers can get feedback on their first efforts. Although each of them takes their inspiration from Lucas' ur-text, the Star Wars fan cinema movement has been the site of enormous formal experimentation. Some, such as Tie-Tanic or Wookie, re-edit and manipulate footage from the original films, creating fresh new takes on the material. Others, such as Seeds of Darkness, restage and rewrite the original content. Almost every imaginable form of animation has been deployed -- ranging from Shockwave (Pulp Phantom) or computer animation (Sacrifice) to claymation (Award Showdown), from origami (Star Wraes) to action figures (Les Pantless Menace). Many of the films crisscross Star Wars with a whole range of other contemporary media products -- from The Matrix (Jedi Matrix), Star Trek (The Ultimate Battle), and American Pie (American Jedi) to Glengary Glen Ross (Glengary Glen Darth), Clerks (Trooper Clerks), or Pulp Fiction (Pulp Phantom), and even contemporary advertising culture (Beer Wars). Some pay loving, if often disrespectful, tribute to Lucas himself, depicting him as a young clueless geek still trying to figure out the theme for his USC student film (George Lucas in Love); as part of an evil empire determined to stop Titanic's surge at the box office no matter what (Tie-Tanic); or as engaging in an all-out war with Steven Spielberg for public recognition (Award Showdown). Others ('Star Wars' or Burst) offer a fan's-eye perspective on the whole Star Wars phenomenon, lovingly documenting the experience of camping out in line for tickets to see Phantom Menace. Still others (Showdown at Narshada, Seeds of Darkness) propose unauthorized extensions to the Star Wars story, introducing new protagonists or antagonists or fleshing out the backstories of secondary characters. Some, like Troops or Trooper Clerks, revisit the Star Wars saga from the perspective of the stormtroopers. Some of the films are a little rough around the edges and wear their unprofessionalism as a mark of authenticity, but many of them achieve moments of comic inventiveness or surreal vision that more than make up for the occasionally raw editing, bad sound dubs, and flat performances. Each of these films is a labor of love -- and it shows.

Some years ago, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed Star Wars as a contemporary retelling of the hero legends of yore, a characterization Lucas has embraced in his own promotion of his media franchise. These fan filmmakers are calling Lucas' bluff. Traditional myths are the property of the folk, who retell them in many different ways, embellishing upon them over time and reworking them to communicate new insights. A folk culture is a participatory culture, something cinema has rarely, if ever, achieved. But the Star Wars fan filmmakers point the way toward a more dialogic and participatory media culture. They dare to imagine a world where each of us can create the Star Wars we want to see.

Star Wars Fan Cinema Links

Award Showdown (Josh Meeter) 6:15

Star Wraes (Ceri Llewellyn) 1:30

Beer Wars (Manuel Aldea) 1:30

Star Wars or Bust (Jason Wishnow) 15:15

The Finding Child (Ed Bein) 8

American Jedi (Adam Schwartz) 8:30

Pulp Phantom 1-4 (Allen Smith), aprox. 8 min.

Les Pantless Menace (Evan Mather) 3:40

Showdown in Narshada Preview (Maciek Skawinski , Adam Plucinski ) 1:40

Seeds of Darkness Preview (Marty Hudzik and Hudzen Mawlawi) 1:17

Matrix Jedi (Jim Skipper and Darrell Finley) 9:39

Glengary Glenn Darth (Gilbert Austin) 7:38

Trooper Clerks (Jeff Allen) 1:45

Sacrifices (Henry Gibbens) 2:00

Wookee (Matthew Beall) 3:30

Troops (Kevin Rubio) 10

Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, has spent his career studying media and the way people incorporate it into their lives. He has published articles on a diverse range of topics relating to popular culture, including work on STAR TREK, WWF Wrestling, Nintendo Games, and Dr. Seuss. He testified in 1999 before the U.S. Senate during the hearings on media violence that followed the Littleton shootings and served as co-chair of Pop!Tech, the 1999 Camden Technology Conference. Jenkins has published six books and more than fifty essays on popular culture. His books include From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1999), The Children's Cultural Reader (1998) "What Made Pistachio Nuts": Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (1993), Classical Hollywood Comedy (1994), Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), and the forthcoming The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Jenkins holds a PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.A. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.

Henry Jenkins, 2001. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for DIG.IT: The 'Star Wars' We'd Like to See.