A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars fan sites were the white-hot center of the universe: A ragtag band of rebels, armed with e-mail and sources claiming to be close to George Lucas himself, they posted spoiler-packed scoops about The Phantom Menace for the world to read.
But now Menace mania is a memory. The second prequel to Lucas’ original trilogy is two long (light) years away. And in the geeky digital republic of Star Wars fandom, there is turmoil.
With Lucas not yet sharing any pages from the Episode II script with loose-lipped minions, scoops have been scarce. When something even remotely noteworthy crosses the horizon — say, an Anakin Skywalker casting rumor — ”there’s this sort of mad hyena-like dash for scraps,” says countingdown. com cocreator Tim Doyle. A few sites, like theprequels.com, have been briefly forced into hiatus. Those who have persevered have turned gaunt and grouchy. ”Traffic is way down for all of us,” says Lou Tambone of starwarz.com. ”If anyone tells you differently, they’re full of crap!”
Famine will undoubtedly turn to feast when Episode II begins filming in June, but even then, not all will be milk and honey like it used to be. In the beginning, Star Wars fan sites formed a community of people in search of people with mutual interests. But with the rerelease of the first trilogy and the start of production on Menace in 1997, a shift began to take place. Gabbing turned to gossiping, with everyone wanting to be the first to tell everyone else something they didn’t know. ”When it was first starting out, it was all friendly,” says theforce.net’s cofounder Scott Chitwood. ”But the more attention Star Wars started getting, the more cutthroat it became.”
The media swarm that attended Menace needed a human face, and fan-site folk played the part perfectly. There was countingdown.com’s Lincoln Gasking on the streets of L.A., organizing lines outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre. There was jedinet.com’s ex-”Prequel Watch” editor Carl Cunningham, whose basement ”Star Wars room” made for the ideal interview backdrop. ”When the media attention hit, people started grabbing for power,” says Cunningham. ”That’s also when they started getting sponsors.”
They did so out of necessity, with traffic upping the cost of bandwidth. At theforce.net, whose encyclopedic approach had catapulted it to the forefront of fan sites, a $40-a-month hobby had metastasized into a $10,000-a-month behemoth. Last year, theforce.net became part of IGN’s family of affiliate sites, a move that not only pays for its tech costs but has made its creators IGN employees. In February, they launched filmforce.ign.com, a brand extension for movie buffs. Says cofounder Brian Linder: ”This is the dream job I’ve been chasing.”
But his success has earned him the enmity of starwarz.com and jedinet.com, both of which feud constantly with theforce.net over who broke what scoops. Last fall, those sites designed an ”anti-theforce.net” logo that now adorns their pages. Starwarz.com’s Tambone insists the logo is a goof created to irk ”self-righteous fanboys,” but he’s resisted theforce.net’s request to remove it. ”They said, ‘You’re promoting negativity,’ and I said, ‘Maybe for you,”’ laughs Tambone. ”It’s pretty funny.” ”It just seems like a waste of time,” responds Chitwood. ”And it reflects badly on the fans.”
Officially, Lucasfilm takes no sides in fandom fighting — even if it did hire theforce.net cocreator Paul Ens last year to run its own starwars.com. ”We just revel in the interest,” says Jim Ward, Lucasfilm’s chief marketing officer. ”We’re lucky that so many people even want to do this kind of thing.” Among the innovations already implemented by Ens: Starwars.com now hosts fan sites itself, with Lucasfilm helping to supply content and even offering site-building instructions. ”Yes, I am the envy of all my friends,” says Ens, ”though I’ve had to transition from posting every piece of information I get to being a little more strategic.”
As the Episode II rumor mill gears up, other sites are reassessing their posting strategies as well, with most feeling they went overboard with spoilers last time. More than anything, though, fans like Cunningham want to see a shift in attitude. Burned out after Menace, he has set up a retro-flavored site, called starwarsfan.org and launching May 22, that seeks to recapture the spirit of early fandom. ”I’m going back to basics,” says Cunningham, whose Star Wars interview room is now in storage, where it will stay. ”It’s just going to be me and a few close friends. To me, it’s not a competition thing. I’m not out to be the best and to get the most hits. I just want to have fun.” Or, as Master Yoda might say, anger the way of the dark side is.