Ten years ago this month, excitement reached fever pitch ahead of the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. After 16 years without a Star Wars film in cinemas, an entire generation got ready to experience the magic of George Lucas‘ space opera on the big screen.
We all remember our reaction when the film finally unspooled. Though the film set box office records and managed to stay fresh in the eyes of critics, fan reaction was generally pretty cool. Plenty of criticism was leveled at the film’s new foibles, not least Ahmed Best‘s Jar-Jar Binks, who managed to offend even the staunchest of Ewok apologists. Indeed, we seem to gloss over the popularity of the character with the under-10s who spent as much allowance as they could muster on various pieces of merchandise emblazoned with the Gungan’s stupid face.
But while most of us remember how we felt after we saw the movie, how familiar are we with the levels of excitement we felt before? Journalist and Star Wars fan Scott Andrews presents a timeline of anticipation for Episode I.
It’s based on an outline written in 1976, before Episode IV was released.
The shoot moves between Leavesden Studios in the UK, Tozeur, Nefta and the not-coincidentally-named Tataouine in Tunisia and Caserta in Italy.
People in the US with camcorders realise that they’re going to have two months to secretly film it and distribute it online so people in the UK can see it.
According to the New York Times, a cinema showing Denzel Washington thriller The Siege took about $1000 on the 16th. When the film was shown the next day, with Star Wars trailer attached, it took $13,000. Meet Joe Black and Wing Commander also benefit, as cinemagoers turn up, buy tickets, watch the minute-long trailer… and then leave. Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, tells the paper, “This is incredible. We’ve never heard of a trailer packing people into a theater. It’s a precedent-setting event.”
To try and get people to stay put, some cinemas announce that they’ll be screening it twice – both before and after the main feature. And it’s worth it, because the trailer is brilliant, giving us Yoda, Samuel L. Jackson, a slightly bored looking Liam Neeson, and lots of great production design. We get our first proper glimpse of Jar-Jar Binks, but he’s not really in it that much, so we’re lulled into a false sense of security.
Lucasfilm’s servers go into meltdown as they receive up to 400 hits a second. Marc Hedlund, director of Internet development for Lucasfilm, tells the Times: “We knew it was going to be popular, but I’m still surprised at the reaction.” Maybe this new fangled interweb thing is going to catch on, eh, Marc?
The trailer is given its own premiere at Leicester Square Odeon two days before it goes on general release for six weeks. It’s pulled after that on the order of George Lucas. The poster of young Anakin with Darth Vader’s shadow begins to appear everywhere. Rumours that it was actually self-replicating, like some sort of paper-based virus, remain unconfirmed.
The Great Beard tells Vanity Fair he won’t be doing any sequels. Ain’t It Cool News runs the opening sentence of the scroll text from the start of the movie. Harry Knowles is confined to bath of ice on doctor’s orders to prevent him ‘sploding with excitement.
In a real-world retcon, the first trailer is renamed a teaser, to distinguish it from the new, longer trailer. A 20th Century Fox spokeswoman says, “This is all new footage. The first was from the little boy Anakin Skywalker’s point of view. This is more focused on the storyline.” The Lucasfilm servers cope this time.
It’s big and exciting but check out the variety of weird accents on display – Natalie Portman‘s odd delivery, Ewan McGregor reading his lines like they’re ingredients on a cereal packet and, oh dear, we get to hear Jar-Jar’s not at all racially offensive pidgin speak – “you sez people gunna die?” Some people feel the first flutterings of panic.
To discourage scalping, Fox decide not to allow advance bookings. It doesn’t occur to them that this will result in people flying across the Atlantic and pitching tents outside cinemas in week long queues for the first tickets. Because that’d be nuts… right? Lucas eventually relents and allows tickets to go on sale on May 14th, with a limit of twelve per customer. Scalps still make a killing.
Ewan McGregor, on the publicity trail for the film, suddenly breaks ranks. “Quite honestly, after my initial excitement, the film-making process turned out to be the epitome of tedium,” he tells the Daily Express. “There was no spontaneity. Your job, as an actor, was just to get it out. I was frowning a lot. It just became a frowning exercise.”
Fox insist that the film be shown in only a cinema’s largest auditorium for the first two or three months and with no non-movies ads before the film. Also, if a cinema wants to show it on multiple screens, it must remain on all those screens for the entire minimum run. Fox wants cinemas who fail to comply to be fined or to lose the right to show the film at all.
Terry Brooks novelises Episode I after Lucas feeds him extra tidbits of info. The book contains lots of supplementary material, including three entirely original chapters. This mean that lots of people knew the story before they even saw the film. Must have cost them a few ticket sales.
Toy retailers are able to sell new Phantom Menace toys in the US as of 00:01 EST. Any retailer which breaks this rule will lose their right to sell Star Wars toys forever. Fans queue all day, and shops open at midnight specially. “I personally haven’t ever seen anything like this,” says Ratana Oleczak, store manager at a Toys R Us store in Milwaukee. “I’ve heard of things that are hot before, like people standing in line for Furbies and for the Tickle Me Elmo and things like that, but as far as this calibre, no.”
John Williams‘ new score doesn’t disappoint. It sells truckloads, with fans queuing to buy it the night before. A track titled ‘Duel of the Fates’ is released as a sort of single, and for weeks you can’t move without hearing it.
Lucas announces the film will be released two days earlier than planned, on May 19th. He’s that confident.
Liam Neeson launches a blistering broadside against Lucas without explicitly naming him. The actor announces he’s quitting Hollywood because “Film is a director’s medium, it has nothing to do with actors. We are basically puppets, walking around, hitting marks, saying lines. Producers earn all the money, and you get the sense that they hate actors. The crews are treated like slaves.” He insists that from now on he will only do one stage play a year and will spend the rest of his time fly fishing or with his family. He never makes a film again…
Ronal Epstein of renowned news outlet, um, Home Theatre Forum, stakes a claim in ‘net history by posting the first review of Phantom Menace. And he doesn’t like it very much. “It looks like Star Wars, it smells like Star Wars and it feels like Star Wars,” he writes. “However, is it a Star Wars that we are going to walk away satisfied with? Well… perhaps, but not for everyone.” An anonymous poster chimes in that “It was a dream come true at first, but quickly turned into a nightmare.”
Fox’s publicity department take a leaf out of William Shatner‘s book, and tells fans to get a life. “Guys, it’s a movie. It isn’t the Bible!” says Tom Sherak at Fox. “It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s escapism. But it’s a movie.”
Even worse, a group of mainstream publications see the reviews online and decide to break the embargo and publish their reviews ten days early, infuriating Fox. Variety say the film “is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull, as well as the sense of wonder and awe that marks the best works of sci-fi and fantasy.”
Tom Sherack scales new heights of PR genius by describing the whole situation as “unfair” and whining that people are not playing by the rules. Aw, bless.
The BBC report that one fan, in Portland, Oregon, did not enjoy queuing for tickets. Gabe Elliot was surrounded by people who sang Star Wars music and recited Monty Python quotes. “I’m surrounded by psychos,” he says.
Eleven special benefit premieres are staged across the US, with tickets going for $500 each.
It is estimated that 2.2 million people pull sick days in order to go see the film. This apparently costs the US economy $293 million. Some savvy employers realise that so many of their staff would be bunking off, they declare it a holiday and shut down. History is made as some cinemas use digital projectors for the first time.
The mood changes from euphoric to disappointed pretty fast. At 10am the BBC news website headline reads “Fans rave over Star Wars“, but by 3:15pm it reads “Fans have ‘mixed feelings’ over Star Wars“.
Phantom Menace makes $28.5m on its opening day, breaking the box office record of $26.1m set in 1997 by The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Tom Sherak gets terribly excited. “It’s Christmas!” he babbles. “Star Wars is like a thoroughbred horse!”
Phantom Menace becomes the first film to earn more than $100m in its first five days of release.
Pirate video copies hit the streets in Asia. It comes from a camcorder recording of a showing in the US and prominently features the back of someone’s head. A few online wags claim it’s better than the official release, as viewers can see proportionally less of Jar Jar Binks. When the film eventually hits home video, a fan goes a step further to rid the film of the pesky Gungan, circulating a bootleg of his attempt to re-edit the film. Dubbed “The Phantom Edit,” it tightens the film’s lengthy runtime and ditches Jar Jar where possible.
The Phantom Menace out now on DVD.