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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.

"Everyone was making [fan films about] lightsaber duels--forest, good guy, bad guy, sabers come out, someone dies," Hanel says. "We were gonna make one too, and after watching 15 of them in a row, I quickly realized something else had to be done. I was kind of stumped until this girl I was pitching a bad idea to (that I had a crush on) literally laughed at me (not with me) and said mid-laughter, 'I don't know about that idea, but watching you guys make it is going to be funny enough.'--LIGHT BULB."

There's a fascinating strain of self-awareness running through The Formula. There is, for example, an emotional climax where one character rants about how much he hated The Phantom Menace after waiting in line for days to see it. "Every good character has conflict, right?" asks Hanel. "What better conflict than to have a Star Wars fan who doesn't like Star Wars?"

HANEL BREAKS THE HISTORY of the fan film into two distinct eras, pre- and post-Internet.

The first era includes spoofs such as 1978's Hardware Wars, as well as a 15-minute "adaptation" called Star Wars: The Remake, which is generally considered the first fan film. "It was made in the early '80s, by a couple kids with an 8mm camera," Hanel says. "It's like a shot-for-shot remake. It's bootlegged a ton. [The kids] got all the way up to the Falcon leaving Tatooine--and then after that it just skips right to the final battle. . . . It has title cards made on an Apple IIe."

The new era of fan-film was pegged to three events--the rise of the Internet, cheap digital moviemaking tools, and, in 1998, the release of Kevin Rubio's TROOPS, the first fan film to gain a wide audience.

TROOPS is a spoof of COPS which follows a squad of Stormtroopers, documentary-style, as they kill Jawas and (indirectly) Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle on Tatooine--explaining the offscreen murders from the original 1977 film.

TROOPS made Rubio a minor Internet celebrity, and led to his induction as an official part of the Lucasfilm universe--he was hired to write parodies for Dark Horse comics, an official licensee of Star Wars.

After TROOPS, the fan-film world exploded. FanFilms.com is now home to over 70 films--which have been culled from the stream of roughly 15-20 new submissions which come to the site every week. There are now online tutorials on how to make lightsaber effects. Fan-film actresses such as Niobe Dean and Leah McLeod enjoy small cult followings, if not outright fame.

Occasionally, a fan-filmmaker gets Hollywood's attention. Take, for instance, Sandy Collora, a commercial director who made a short film called Batman: Dead End, which featured the Caped Crusader (in a wonderfully lo-fi stretch-Lycra costume) fighting the Joker, Aliens, and Predators. (Collora's conceptual pile-on was itself later spoofed by the comic strip PvP--which had one of its characters make a fan film putting Indiana Jones on the Death Star). Collora worked fan websites, got attention, and eventually scored a pitch meeting to direct a Shazam! film.

SO HOW GOOD are fan films today? Even at a curated site like FanFilms.com, they're wildly uneven. They are, after all, amateur shorts, with acting and cinematography to match. For instance, it's difficult to make it through the expositional portions of A Question of Faith without snickering at the flatly shot, yawn-inducing monologues. It's a little like watching Krull in slow-motion.

But this is unnecessarily cruel. Even Faith's director, Jason S. Alexander, admits his own shortcomings on the film's website: "Truth be told, the original premise of this movie was simply to show some exciting and well-choreographed saber fights."

FAN FILMS typically fall into three thematic sub-categories.

First, there are the exercises in special-effects pornography--stories with minimal setups leading to lightsaber duels, with the spirit of Darth Maul looming large in the money shots. The best of these is Ryan vs. Dorkman, a surprisingly well edited and choreographed exercise in which effects artists Michael Scott and Ryan Wieber--without even bothering to change into costumes--spend five minutes swinging lightsabers at each other in increasingly amusing ways. (Honorable mentions go to Art of the Saber--the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of fan films, and Duality, which looks great even though it features a character named "Darth Blight.")

Then there are the postmodern fan films--movies like The Formula--that marinate in self-reference and snark. They're more accessible to non-fans--because (a) they tend to make fun of Star Wars (and themselves) with the sort of knowing wink that says, "Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed about my obsessions--but what the hell can I do about it at this point?"; and (b) some of them are unbelievably strange.

Take, for example, How the Sith Stole Christmas. It's an insane jumble of the Star Wars and Dr. Seuss storylines, only it's played straight. By the time Darth Vader steals the Ewoks' presents, a Star Destroyer is chasing Santa Claus through an asteroid field, and elves in toy planes are wrapping tree lights around the legs of imperial walkers.

Other, lesser entries include: Bounty Trail--which begins with a young man buying a Star Wars comic book before exploding into what feels like a messy episode of a '70s TV series starring Boba Fett; and PA Wars and its sequel Duel of the Fakes, which concern beleaguered Hollywood film assistants who, apropos of nothing, wield lightsabers while fetching coffee for their bosses.

Finally, there are the ambitious fan films--sincere, irony-free attempts by filmmakers to expand the mythology they're borrowing. Some of these are, at times, scary good. Broken Allegiance tells the story of two renegade "dark" Jedi. The story isn't much, but the opening 90 second chase scene--with twisty camerawork and intricate geography that has TIE fighters slamming into walls and each other as they chase a shuttle--is more exciting than the openings of either Star Wars prequel.

The same can be said for the even more ambitious KnightQuest, which was shot on film and looks as though it cost somewhere in the low five figures to produce. It opens with a space chase that's so kinetic that George Lucas should be taking notes. As with all the Star Wars fan films, it's most comfortable when it's in motion--fights and flights are great; words coming out of mouths less so. But the ending evokes The Empire Strikes Back's melancholy so well--with its dream-like shots of Vader walking through the woods and an orphaned Jedi sailing into space, swearing vengeance against the Dark Lord of the Sith--that someone really ought to give writer/director Joseph Monroe a job.

LIKE THEIR OFFICIAL COUNTERPARTS, Star Wars and Star Trek fan films have distinct identities: Star Wars homages tend to be more focused on the kinetics of editing, movement, and violence, while the handful of truly ambitious Star Trek fan films work harder to convey characters and ideas. Consider Star Trek: New Voyages--one of the greatest, kookiest fan films of all time.

New Voyages, written and directed by Jack Marshall, aspires to nothing less than completing the remaining two years in the USS Enterprise's five-year mission--with new actors playing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Like Starship Exeter, it offers a complete TV episode for download. It also offers an uncanny replication of '60s-Trek costumes, lighting, and sets.

If this sounds like a foolhardy endeavor--how does one replace William Shatner, and even if you could, why would you?--well, it is. But still, the obvious, raw enthusiasm behind New Voyages gives it a strange, ridiculous power. Aliens appear as kitchy balls of energy, Kirk and Spock philosophize about the hymn "Amazing Grace," and a mysterious woman transforms into a dancing green slave girl in Kirk's quarters. New Voyages exists as a blazing reminder to the real Star Trek's Rick Berman that he's forgotten everything that made Star Trek a sexy, fun vehicle for ideas. In many ways, the better fan films seem like not-so-subtle warnings to the official license-holders: Underestimate your fans and they will outdo you.

SO THE BIG QUESTION REMAINS: Will the fans ever be able to make a truly professional film--one that puts it all together, as it were, in a complete package of top-drawer story, effects, and acting?

"I think we keep coming so extremely close that it's heartbreaking," Hanel says. "Knightquest and Broken Allegiance come to mind. Both had amazing production values--and then that one thing that makes the whole structure crumble."

And what if the fans do manage to reinvent the wheel? "Fan-films are probably going to wane pretty soon, either for one of two reasons: (1) Someone's going to make one way too good, and Lucas is finally gonna have to put the smackdown on allowing them; or (2) people are going to realize that filmmaking is so cheap any more they can make something quality enough to sell instead of being beholden to Lucas's copyright laws."

Not that he's giving up hope. "Right now, there are 200 15-year-olds all bugging each other asking how to make lightsabers glow. It's hard to believe, but one of those kids is the next Spielberg. Hopefully not the next Lucas--I'd hate to release that on the world."

"Fan-filmmakers make these movies because they're excited about what they're doing," Hanel explains. "Nobody becomes a director because their parents made them. Now, add to the fact that someone is so excited about filmmaking that they'll make a film and be broke by the end of it, no matter what. That's dedication to an art."

M.E. Russell is a writer and cartoonist in Portland, Oregon.