A lot of movie marketing uses the word “anticipated.” which always strikes me as curious. Movies are often anticipated simply because they have strong marketing behind them, so claims of a movie being “most anticipated” are something of a closed loop.
[[image:epone2_poster.jpg:Every saga has a beginning…:right:0]]However, when people called Episode One one of, if not the, most anticipated movies of all time, it wasn’t hyperbole.
As I mentioned before, Star Wars had been slowly ramping up in the 13 years since Return of the Jedi. The release of the Special Editions brought Star Wars back into mainstream pop culture. Parents were taking their families see the movies they cared about when they were kids, and rediscovered their love for the saga by seeing it through the eyes of their own kids. Star Wars was once again something that families were sharing together. Children newly introduced to the saga were clamoring for toys of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and their parents were telling them stories of what it was like seeing Empire for the first time, not believing that Darth Vader could possibly be Luke’s father. The saga was relevant to a new generation, and was being rediscovered by the generation that grew up with them.
It was this environment in which Episode One was announced.
It might be hard for people who didn’t live through it to imagine the cultural impact that the prospect of a new Star Wars movie had. Nearly every media outlet was trying to get a piece of Episode One. Star Wars was on the cover of Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and many other magazines. Every piece of Star Wars news was endlessly regurgitated on every TV program that could justify it. For kids today, look at the coverage Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton get every time they get too drunk and do something embarrassing and multiply that by a factor of 10. Unlike the hype machines of today that are trying to turn every movie or show or announcement into an “event,” this hype was generated naturally, authentically, organically. Star Wars is not some niche sci-fi property jealously defended by a tiny core of dedicated fans — Star Wars is a legitimate cultural touchstone.
Do you remember where you were when you first saw the teaser for Episode One? I do! I spent an entire day downloading the video over my dial-up internet connection. It premiered on television a little later, and while I don’t remember the show that debuted it, I do remember recording it on VHS and watching it hundreds of times. For the first — and so far only — time, I was jealous of people who went to see an Adam Sandler movie, as The Waterboy was the first theatrical release to have the teaser attached. That VHS tape where I captured the teaser video also contained hours of Entertainment Tonight style coverage of the film. Every clip of the film was endlessly watched and analyzed.
[[image:epone2_darthm.jpg:Darth Maul with Speeder Bike:left:0]]It was a dizzying time to be a fan. Everywhere you went, there was some kind of tie-in merchandise. Since Lucasfilm pretty much invented the modern industry of merchandising, it’s only fitting that Episode One was so heavily merchandised. For a while, no matter what kind of product you needed for your life — whether for your car, your pantry, your kitchen, your bathroom, your garden, whatever — you could get it with a Star Wars logo affixed.
I was hardly immune to this licensing bonanza. Do you remember “Midnight Madness”? This was the name attached to the midnight openings of Toys ‘R Us stores for the release of the Episode One toys. At the event I attended, they let in fans 10 at a time, and I was in the third group to go in. Even with only 10 people there, the mood was manic. The single-packed Darth Maul figure was already long gone by the time I reached the shelves, but I did end up getting the Maul figure that came packed with his speeder bike, along with figures for Obi Wan, Anakin, Qui-Gon, Darth Sidious and Jar Jar.
[[image:epone2_soundtrack.jpg:Spoiler Alert!:right:0]]I also bought the novelization before the movie came out, and somehow, somehow I managed not to read it. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it endlessly. The track “Duel of the Fates”, to me, is as iconic a piece of Star Wars music as the Cantina music or the Imperial March. However, I instantly regretted my soundtrack purchase — not because it was bad, but because the track listing included a major spoiler for the film. Between that, all the minor spoilers on the toy packaging, and my unquenchable thirst for clips, I went into Episode One knowing a bit more than I would have liked. I even ended up with a full set of the fast food premiums — the cup toppers and the Taco Bell kids meal toys — and I was decked out with my Episode One ballcap, multiple t-shirts, watches… pretty much everything.
It was a magical time in my life. Something I cared deeply about was being wholeheartedly embraced by the mainstream culture, and I loved it. 1999 seems fairly early in the Internet’s life now, but I still managed to point my dial-up connection to AOL over to the then nascent StarWars.com and the thriving fansite TheForce.Net, both of which still exist today, serving the needs of the Star Wars fan. I cherish that time in the lead-up to Episode One — it was a time of total immersion in a universe I love, and I’ll always treasure those memories.
On May 18th, 1999, the evening before the midnight release of the film, I lined up about ten hours in advance. The buzz was a palpable, physical thing. It was ten hours of consistent adrenaline, of hanging out with people who cared about the same thing as I did, people for whom the saga was something more than just a space-fantasy. The conversations that evening were nerdier than even the geekiest comment thread on GameSpite.
The doors opened. Seats were found. My heart was racing. The Lucasfilm logo appeared… and then the crawl.
After 13 years of keeping the flame of Star Wars alive, I was back in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.