It is 8PM on May 18th, 1999:
I'm ten years old and the back of my crappily-made Jedi robe is snapping around behind me in rhythm with my hurried steps as I walk alongside my Dad. We head into The Bakery Center (now known as The Shops at Sunset Place) with our lightsabers clipped to our belts. It's time! I've never been to a midnight premiere of any movie before, and since it is a weekday, the line for Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace had already looped clear around the block before I had even finished my homework.
True to my spoiler-curious fashion, I had already powered through Queen Amidala's Journal, which I had bought with allowance money at my school's recent book fair. Gone from my low-grade CD player was the disc for SPICE; I'd been listening to the movie's soundtrack for over a week. I watched every promo spot, practiced my blaster skills on a stormtrooper room guard, and was already plotting out my Queen Amidala costume for Halloween.
By this time, it had been six years since George Lucas had let it slip that he was working on the first film of a new Star Wars prequel trilogy, and even more time for speculation to run wild among fans. Despite any fears or skepticism, though, the May 19th premiere was gigantic.
Lines wrapped around buildings and went down blocks; lightsabers lit the sidewalks. Fans across the country came together in a joyous celebration that hailed the return of a universe many people didn't know; fans felt confident that The Phantom Menace and it's sequels would help bring in a new wave of Star Wars loyals. The hype for the new film was so huge that ten years later, a movie called Fanboys was released with a plot based on the experience leading up to watching the film.
The Marketing was Addictive
The marketing team behind the movies, of course, thought the same things too - striking a deal with Pepsi to create a line of collectible cans that replaced the many action figures missing from my poor kid's collection:
Actually, food was a definite central marketing effort for Episode I, which was fine by me because I loved to eat. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell suddenly became Naboo, Coruscant, and Tatooine. The marketing went way beyond this, but these were the most memorable for me. After all, who could forget this epic team-up?
The Phantom Menace, for all of it's faults, set and broke several records during it's run: beating out Titanic's release week records and making over $300 million in 28 days. Granted, that matters not now; [Guardians of the Galaxy](movie:424073), Marvel's refreshing sci-fi movie with very obvious Star Wars influences, broke that record worldwide just a little while ago. What's more, the DVD release saw another record-breaking sale rate, selling a staggering (for that time) 2.2m copies during its first week of release. Despite being the start of a trilogy that fandom almost refuses to acknowledge, the numbers very clearly show how much people cared about this movie.
And why not? Before the era of Superhero movies (which wouldn't really take off for another few years) folks in the US were pretty desperate for an otherworldly adventure. The country was still in mourning for the young lives stolen just a month earlier at Columbine. We needed heroes, and we needed them to fight for good, for hope. So, despite The Phantom Menace kicking off the downfall of a bright young Jedi pilot, seeing these forces for good on screen was more than refreshing.
Let's Talk About Me (Me! Me! Me!) for a Second
As someone who was not around for the release of the original trilogy in the 70's, I've had pretty mixed feelings about my first Star Wars premiere. I was a bright-eyed ten-year-old who, just two years earlier, had seen Return of the Jedi on the big screen for the first time. Before the new trilogy, the edits and additions to the re-releases weren't terribly over-the-top: Jabba's scene had been extended, the Sarlacc was upgraded with a mouth, and a montage of planets alongside a new song had been added to the ending celebration.
The re-releases of the original trilogy brought Star Wars to a new generation. This meant a lot to me; until then, my dad and I only had crappy VHS versions of the original film that he'd bought while I was but a twinkle in his eye, and every once in a while I'd catch a rerun of A New Hope on The Sci-fi Channel. It was mind-blowing, it was emotional, it contributed to my first fictional crush - Han Solo, naturally - and it was awesome. Probably because this didn't happen:
It's easy to list off every flaw with the prequels and their affect on the trilogy that inspired them, but the experience of going to the movies with my Dad to see these films, as he had done with his dad before, was monumental to me. Being a Star Wars fan (and an overall geek by then, thanks to my dad) may have not afforded me too many friends, but the ones I made because of it were great. Star Wars made me fall in love with sci-fi and the space opera concept - I went on to obsessively read the expanded universe stories, build costumes based off of the characters I loved, and lead entire fan communities that loved the series like I did.
I couldn't sit still as the trailers for Fight Club and whatever else were playing; my mind was already in a galaxy far, far away. The blare of horns made me jump as the opening titles started rolling, and for a second, I held my breath, before going into the depths of Naboo and watching scenes that I'd be able to recite for years to come.
(Kudos to Keira Knightley - standing to Natalie portman's left - in one of her earliest roles as Padme's handmaiden and decoy, Sabe. Rumor has it that Portman's mother mistook Knightley for her daughter countless times during a set visit.)
Now, It's Time to Relive It Again
Despite what the prequels ultimately became, I'm excited for the new movies. Along with the reassurance (through leaked images, cast interviews, and J.J. Abrams' twitter) that we'll have a series true to it's original predecessors, we get at least three more chances at experiencing the frenzy and joy of a Star Wars midnight premiere. I can't wait for the costumes, the cheers, and even the weird jazz bands that hang out nearby and play music from the films. We'll have the original three back - hopefully with the same wit and chemistry that made the original trilogy so passionately character-driven - and all of the new faces are more than excited to bring a new generation of heroes to the big screen.
So, what was your Star Wars premiere experience like? Did you go in the 70's - and do you think the hype was different from premiere-to-premiere? Tell me your story in the comments, I'd love to hear it!