May 13, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- At 3 p.m. EDT on Wednesday afternoon -- a week before the film's premiere -- advance tickets went on sale for "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace."
Ticket sellers have geared up for the moment by adding staff and equipment. MovieFone, which sells tickets by telephone and on the Internet, says it's boosted its Web capacity to handle 10 times more customers than normally access the service online. The company also says it's increased its telephone capacity by 30 percent.
Loews, Mann Theatres and Edwards Cinemas are among the theater operators selling in advance by telephone or at the box office at most theaters.
And as ticket outlets have braced for the anticipated assault, die-hard "Star Wars" fans have prepared for the premiere by camping out for tickets.
We sent CNN Interactive film writer and reviewer Paul Tatara out onto the street -- a little pavement-pounding keeps him humble, you know -- to meet some of the fans who've been lined up in front of Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theater for weeks, waiting for the big day.
By Film Writer Paul Tatara
Big news, everybody! Did you hear they're coming out with a new "Star Wars" movie?!
Unless you're an especially sheltered zygote in the early stages of conception, I know as sure as I'm sitting here that you've heard about "The Phantom Menace" ... so many times, in fact, that you've had to shift over to the other side of your cerebellum for a supply of unused brain cells.
George Lucas' return to the director's chair for another installment of his deified space opera has so fully infiltrated every nook and cranny of the American experience, you'd think that Obi-Wan Kenobi is expected to blurt out a secret cure for cancer when the movie opens on May 19.
If only. It's far more likely that a ton of goofy-looking creatures will be driving super-fast space vehicles, the power of the Force will be solemnly intoned several times over, there'll be lots of fighting and, eventually, there'll be a huge explosion. It'll be a load of fun, I'm sure (and I really mean that.) It'll also look extremely expensive.
Then everybody will see it again, because they're expected to, and then they'll buy a couple hundred dollars' worth of toys because they're expected to. And then they'll go see it again and again. And then they'll buy bedsheets. And a backpack. And then, God forbid, somebody out there will sell 'em a Chewbacca burger.
"Titanic"-mania was small potatoes in comparison. That movie only goosed the country to a level of obsession that hadn't been seen since we had to save our used cooking oil and old newspapers to help defeat the Nazis. And "Titanic" actually had to be released before everybody got carried away with the message. At the time, I mockingly wrote that the movie had become a religion.
But "Star Wars," with its flowing robes, "thought-provoking philosophy," and multiple gospels is the real religion, the kind of myth-soaked narrative that can serve any profound purpose you'd like it to serve, no matter how little it actually has to do with our day-to-day existence.
Regardless of what many people (including some of my closest friends) may think, I'm not a complete idiot. I can clearly see that Lucas is a talented director and he has a real flair for telling a classically structured story. But, frankly, the hushed reverence that many people reserve for his movies gives me creeps.
If you were around when the first "Star Wars" film originally came out, you'll recall that it was considered the ultimate know-nothing entertainment, a 1930s serial with great special effects. Now people get on the Internet and debate the meaning of a raised eyebrow they saw in the new movie's trailer.
These films are fantasies hanging from the clouds, folks, and we're walking down here, on the concrete. I realize, of course, that that's the draw, but maybe Lucas' most ardent supporters should get back to focusing on terra firma once they leave the theater.
You can tell why I was a tad apprehensive as I headed over to The Ziegfeld Theater here in Manhattan to talk to a group of "Star Wars" enthusiasts who've been hanging out for a couple of weeks now, waiting to buy tickets to see "The Phantom Menace." They're pretty excited to see the movie. And they'd better be, too, because they've got seven days to go before it opens.
I'm happy to report that all of the Waiters (the only accurate name for them) are very nice people, and most even display a welcome, self-deprecating sense of humor when it comes to the obvious question, "Why?"
"There are a lot of people who don't understand why," says Frank, 28, "and I think I'm one of them at times. Like right now, when I need some sleep." Frank, who's a funny guy, definitely looks tired, but, realistically speaking, it's probably more of a boredom situation that's got him down. It's not like he's been sprawled out on the sidewalk for two straight weeks, trying desperately to hold his bladder.
Kevin, a 25-year-old video conference administrator (and the most enthusiastic of the fans that I spoke to), explains to me that there are 250 people involved in this project, and they hunker down in front of the theater on West 54th Street in shifts. A couple hours here, a couple hours there. Kevin himself has put in about two hours a day for the past two weeks and seems none the worse for wear. He also hips me to a very important, seldom referred-to fact about the Wait. This is also a charity situation.
They're earning money for the Starlight Children's Foundation, a program dedicated to fulfilling wishes for seriously ill children. Each Waiter wears a badge with a different child's story on it, and a mention of what Starlight has done for the child in order to brighten his or her life. The group has a sponsor, and dollars are earned for Starlight by waiting in line.
That's a real nice, unexpected gesture, and it's an admirable way to give meaning to a collective hunker-down that otherwise seems rather ... well ... meaningless. (Waiters also earn points that will guarantee them free admission to the film's first showing, at 12:01 a.m. on May 19.)
I explain to some of the gang (there are about 12 people present when I'm there, although there have been as many as 75 at any one time) that I can understand lingering overnight for something like a rock concert. I've slept on the cold, hard, Birmingham ground for Bruce Springsteen before, but only because he was gonna be playing a show and then leaving.
And the show would be unique to the moment, on the particular night that I got to see it. If you watch "The Phantom Menace" on May 19 of this year or on August 4, 2007, Liam Neeson isn't likely to surprise you with an unexpected, rollicking cover of "Mountain of Love." It's the same movie every time you watch it, so why wait on the sidewalk for a month?!
Aha! They knew I would ask them that. Of course, a lot of them just answer with smirks and eye-rolling. These are the people who basically view the whole thing as an especially grueling lark, if that's not a contradiction in terms. The others just want to experience the movie with a group of like-minded people, the chosen ones who'll show the proper amount of enthusiasm when Lucas unveils the seamlessly integrated digital lightsabers and the like.
Not that it matters, but this isn't a good enough answer for me. You'll be able to watch this particular film with a whoopin', hollerin' hoard of obsessives for the first 10 weeks that it's out, if not longer. I lean a bit more toward the explanation that Robert, a 26-year-old college student (who's studying Shakespeare while he sits in line) gives me. "Most of the story," he says, "is based on Greek mythology and Zen Buddhism." Time-honored story forms, he seems to feel, are what people lock onto.
So they wait. It doesn't look like much fun, to tell you the truth. The highlight of the ordeal so far was when a bunch of the group got to shout out pro-"Star Wars" slogans while The Ziegfeld was hosting the big premiere of "The Mummy," with actors and studio-types in attendance and within earshot. Oh, yeah, and the time those girls drove by and flashed them. That was good, too.
Feel the Force.
Special: Star Wars -- Back to the Beginning
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