Force To Be Reckoned With

Legions of `Star Wars' fanatics to gather for the premiere of another in the galaxy of tribute films.

April 16, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Aphalanx of Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, two R2-D2 droids and a model who posed for a collectible Star Wars card game will walk the red carpet tonight at Baltimore's Senator Theatre.

The film they're celebrating features awe-inspiring ruins, a bar crammed with colorful rogues, vertiginous cityscapes streaked with undulating lights and the last remnant of saber-bearing Jedi knights.

But this isn't a sneak peek at visionary filmmaker George Lucas' next Star Wars installment, Revenge of the Sith - that's due out May 19. This is the world premiere of Revelations, a Star Wars "fan film," made for less than $20,000 by Shane Felux of Gainesville, Va.

The 40-minute digital creation is part of a global phenomenon. Lucas' first five Star Wars films have grossed $3.4 billion worldwide. And in the 28 years since the epic space opera made its debut, men and women like Felux - lovers of all things Star Wars - have redeployed its heroes, stories and dialogue for parody or homage or both. Whether with papier-mache and construction paper, or computer graphics and the Internet, they've re-created Lucas' risky imaginary universe in their back yards or basements.

In 1977, the first Star Wars fan filmmakers, three kids in Worcester, Mass., used an old mattress and a sawhorse to fashion Lucas' Landspeeder. The latest fan filmmakers use sophisticated software.

Felux, a 33-year-old computer-graphics artist, produced Revelations with his wife, Dawn Cowings, 35. (It's available online Monday at panicstruckpro.com/revelations). They relied on friends and friends of friends (including Senator owner Tom Kiefaber), actors from up and down the East Coast and craftsmen from around the globe. And nobody got paid.

"It was my dream as a kid to make a Star Wars film," says Felux. "It's what inspired me to pursue acting; it's what inspired me to go to college."

Comparable movie franchises, such as Star Trek, have generated fervid fan-film cultures; two schoolkids in Mississippi did a famous shot-for-shot duplicate of another iconic Lucas production, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But no other movie series has inspired as lengthy and as varied a fan-film list as Star Wars.

Individually, these films keep the humor and enthusiasm bubbling in Star Wars' global clubhouse. Together, they unite "community-building" with two of Lucas' prime preoccupations, "independent filmmaking and digital technology," says Steve Sansweet, director of content management and head of fan relations for Lucasfilm Ltd.

That's partly why Lucas maintains a close watch on them. Though the producer insists that fans not profit from their films or sully Star Wars' characters with profanity or lewdness, for four years he's bestowed a George Lucas Selects Award on his favorite.

That title has been announced, when possible, at Lucas-sponsored Celebration Conventions that herald the arrival of each new Star Wars prequel. The last one drew 26,000. (When there is no new Star Wars and thus no Celebration, the awards are held at San Diego's mid-summer comic-book fan gathering, the Comic-Con.)

At this year's Celebration, Thursday to April 24 in Indianapolis, Lucas will select a winner from 16 finalists drawn from roughly 115 entries. They include a movie parody, Anakin Dynamite, and a TV parody, Sith Apprentice.

Lucasfilm Ltd. is also transporting an entire musical from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to the Celebration Convention: Star Wars: Musical Edition. "I mean this in the best possible way," says Mary Franklin, the company's fan events specialist. "Star Wars: Musical Edition is a very clever combination of musical-theater geekdom and Star Wars geekdom."

Fan-film ingenuity has stoked Lucas' hope that the digital revolution will free movies from big-studio control. "It's part of what George has been pushing and the company has been pushing - the democratization of the process," says Sansweet.

Some Star Wars fan films have served as calling cards. Kevin Rubio came up with Troops, a spiffy 1998 take-off on Cops peopled with Imperial Stormtroopers, then got a job penning spoofs for Dark Horse comics. After Joe Nussbaum directed the Star Wars-meets-Shakespeare-in-Love farce, George Lucas in Love (1999), he won a directing gig on a Hollywood teen movie, Sleepover (2004).

But Revelations director Felux, who studied theater at Southwest Texas State and acted in New York before moving to Virginia, typifies the genre's values when he says, "First and foremost, I'm a Star Wars fan."

A computer-graphics artist from 9 to 5 (and the father of two), he prodded his spouse to do a Star Wars script. The costliest item on his budget was a $3,500 digital camera.

Felux signed up gifted artisans and community-theater actors ("a Dead Poets Society kind of thing") and, for three years, pushed a seat-of-the-pants production to epic proportions.

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