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The Fan Films Strike Back

Thanks to digital cinema and the Web, geeks are filming their own "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" stories. And they're pretty close to making something better than the junk their heroes have been dishing out lately.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2004 • By M.E. RUSSELL
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IN THE MARCH 2004 issue of Vanity Fair, Jim Windolf profiled three teenagers who spent the seven years between 1982 and 1989 making a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark--using a camcorder, homemade props, and a dog standing in for the Nazi-saluting monkey. (You can view a trailer for the production here.)

Billed as "a tale of love, obsession, and pissed-off moms," Windolf distills the behind-the-scenes drama of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (which was first brought to the public's eye by Harry Knowles) for Vanity Fair readers who probably spend little time contemplating how to turn their basements into flaming Nepalese bars.

Windolf's prose betrays an obvious admiration for the Fitzcarraldo-like obsession of these 10- and 11-year-old boys: "While countless American kids spent the Reagan years numbing their brains," he gushes, the Raiders group was "routinely pulling all-nighters to run lines of dialogue, hammer sets, and make stuff explode." (His appraisal of the final copycat product? "You watch partly rooting for Indiana Jones and partly rooting for the kids onscreen to pull off a feat they don't know is impossible.") Windolf describes the kids' struggle to finish the piece; their fights; their re-discovery by Knowles; and the resulting fame that led, just recently, to a film deal that's the very definition of postmodern Hollywood narcissism--a movie about a bunch of kids paying tribute to their favorite movie by making a movie.

But Windolf makes it sound like Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation exists in a vacuum--and it doesn't. In fact, there's a growing "fan film"-producing subculture. The legion of these devotees has grown so large that they even have their own convention, Fanzillacon, set for June 11-13, which the now grown-up Raiders adapters are planning to attend.

"FAN FILMS" are works that steal characters and situations from a licensed movie franchise without permission. (It will surprise no one that the most-purloined franchises are Star Wars and Star Trek.) They are usually, but not always, shot by amateurs. The films themselves--which made the bootleg rounds at conventions before the Internet--are now distributed for free online, many of them at sites such as FanFilms.com and iFilm.

The fan-filmmaker can't profit from his work, because he's usually already stretching the notion of fair use to the limits. This is a critical point: A fan film may occasionally make fun, but it's a different animal from satire. Unlike, say, a Saturday Night Live sketch, most fan films have some narrative meat on their bones. For example, the valiant obsessives behind Starship Exeter have done nothing less than create an entirely new Star Trek series. Their first, freely downloadable episode is a roughly 35-minute adventure (complete with credits and opening and closing teasers) that wouldn't have looked out of place during the original Trek's 1966-68 TV run. Starship Exeter eerily re-creates music, lighting, sound, props, and even the sweaty, shirt-ripping fight scenes.

Exeter is just one example of an unexpected evolution of the form: The fans have come surprisingly close, on a number of occasions, to making works more compelling than the tepid junk being ladled out today by the official owners of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.

THE JOURNEY into fan films should begin with Chris Hanel. Hanel, 23, is one of the better fan-film directors. (He recently released a spoofy tribute video to fan films. The tribute features an inspiring narration from Richard Dreyfuss which was, naturally, stolen.)

When he was 20, Hanel made his first fan film, The Formula, about a group of geeks trying to make a fan film called Star Wars: Bond of the Force.

Bond of the Force jokingly embraces all the worst clichés of the fan film: It is essentially two overweight men in cloaks fighting with lightsabers in a public park.