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May 3, 2013 — How Star Wars: Episode I Destroyed Popular Filmmaking: Pt – 1 Excitement
by Ryan Henry
Steve, Derek, and I woke up before dawn and headed to the Malco multiplex on Frederica Street in Owensboro, KY, to wait in line. The occasion — tickets were going on sale for Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and we wanted to be sure to get to see the film on opening day. We heralded the return of the Star Wars saga by bringing plastic lightsabers to duel while waiting and a Chewbacca cardboard standee to preside over the morning’s festivities. We would wait a mere four hours to purchase our tickets, a fraction of the sixteen years it had been since we had all watched the previous film, The Return of the Jedi, in theaters.
Of course I had already purchased on CD the movie’s orchestral score composed by John Williams. A midnight odyssey to an after-hours premiere of the new Hasbro action figures line at Toys R Us yielded the two Jedi (Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi), a Battle Droid, and a mysterious new alien warrior named Jar Jar Binks (who I figured would be similar to Chewbacca from the original series). My Star Wars fandom had embarrassingly surpassed childhood nostalgia of the original films to encompass expanded universe novels such as Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series, West End Games’ tabletop roleplaying game, and a Darth Vader action figure still on card signed by David Prowse. At the end of that day, my collection included three tickets to see Episode I on opening day at the Malco multiplex on Frederica Street, in Owensboro, KY.
The Star Wars marketing machine had worked viewers into a frenzy. A cheeky trailer for the film Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me commanded “If you see only one movie this summer – see Star Wars. But if you see two movies, see Austin Powers 2.” Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken adapted their décor to resemble key settings from the film and advertised it on their packaging (hey, I was in college, so I saw a lot of Taco Bell in those days). Mountain Dew and other Pepsi products stamped the characters’ faces on the drink cans. [An aside, if you drank diet sodas you would get a female character such as Queen Amidala or Padme. This sexist promotion continues to more contemporary films such as Marvel’s Avengers with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow adorning cans of Diet Dr. Pepper. We will discuss this again in the Marketing section.] I had (and still have because I get rid of nothing) an Episode I sheet set. Cereal bowls, coloring books, action figures, Christmas tree ornaments, etc.
I could continue and tell you just how big the hype of Episode I was to me as a Star Wars fan and how much Lucasfilm pushed the film through every available outlet. I could also tell you the disappointment my friends and I felt, leaving the screen at around 2:30 p.m. on May 19 after the first showing in Owensboro. Shell-shocked, we debated if we wanted to watch the film again at 3:15 (since we had already purchased a total of three tickets to the film for opening day). I don’t need to describe all of this to you, likely because you’ve read it elsewhere or even experienced it for yourself. No, this is going to be much bigger than that and much more damning of George Lucas and the juggernaut of terrible filmmaking that is Episode I. This is going to explain just how The Phantom Menace drafted the blueprint of how terrible American popular cinema became in the following years.