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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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"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.