Symposium

The Star Wars franchise, fan edits, and Lucasfilm

Forrest Phillips

University of California, Santa Cruz, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan edit; Fan studies; George Lucas; Textual poaching

Phillips, Forrest. 2012. "The Star Wars Franchise, Fan Edits, and Lucasfilm." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0385.

1. Introduction

[1.1] We love our fans…But if in fact someone is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that's not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.

—Jim Ward, former vice president of marketing at Lucasfilm

[1.2] Contrary to Jim Ward's statement, there is a long history of fans using video to comment on their favorite texts (Coppa 2008). One example of this is the fan edit, a work in which a fan takes an original text, such as a film, and recuts it to create a new text with a new meaning. Competing edits are passed around within fandoms, where they act as arguments about the original text. Fan edits assert that fan authority is on par with that of a work's original creator; this authority is generated not only through the argument, but through the structure of the text itself. Fan edits adhere to classical filmmaking techniques, creating coherent plots and editing for continuity. These recut texts are emblematic of current ownership debates. They are the read/write culture brought to fandom (Lessig 2004, 37). The Star Wars series of films are among the most frequently recut texts and are my focus here.

2. Examining fan edits

[2.1] Fan edits are created by fans who take an original work and then use filmmaking techniques to "reclaim" it. Narrative and reappropration are important to fan edits and vids, but there are some critical differences (Middleton 2010, 121, 126). Fan vids frequently focus on character studies, or they draw out the emotional or internal lives of characters. Fan edits, on the other hand, are only interested in drawing out emotion to the degree that it supports the narrative (Jenkins 2006, 159–60; Gray 2010, 144). Fan vids are assembled by arranging clips from a work to music, while fan edits tend to use the work in its entirety, with clips removed, added, or rearranged according to the editor's preference. Their use of classical Hollywood techniques and the inclusion of the near entirety of the original work assert the fan editor's authority as akin to that of an auteur. The assertion of parity comes from the fact that fan editors perceive their texts as "director's cuts," but made by fans. Fans' right to make these edits has its origins in Michel de Certeau's notion of textual poaching (Kapell 2006, 13; Mason 2009, 86; Jenkins 1992, 24, 34). De Certeau equated the relationship between a work and its audience with that of roaming nomads taking what they need: "Far from being writers…readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves" (2002, 174). Textual poaching is thus framed as being inherently in conflict with content owners. Poaching is typically used as a way to queer a text, but fans can also use it to claim ownership. Henry Jenkins argues this point:

[2.2] The ideology of fandom involves both a commitment to some degree of conformity to the original program materials as well as a perceived right to evaluate the legitimacy of any use of those materials, either by textual producers or by textual consumers…Such a relationship obligates fans to preserve a certain degree of fidelity to program materials, even as they seem to rework them towards their own ends. (2000, 486)

[2.3] Jenkins thus describes the way fan editors adhere to the plotlines of original works while altering them to fit their own interpretations. Jenkins highlights the fact that poaching is a way for fans to take a mass culture product and retool it into a personally significant text (2000, 472) .

[2.4] Fan edits exist between the two poles occupied by vidding and fan films. Vids focus on characters' internal lives and are typically gendered as a feminine form of fan production (Jenkins 2006, 159; Gray 2010, 144). Fan films affirm the existing narrative and are typically gendered as masculine (Derecho 2008, 215). Fan edits are gendered as neutral in that they recontextualize a source by editing it but typically reaffirm the broad strokes of the foundational narrative. In the Star Wars fan edit oeuvre, Luke Skywalker always destroys the Death Star, but the way he does so can change. Fan films and edits are often (at least overtly) apolitical, while the most heralded fan vids articulate a strong political perspective. For example, Luminosity's fan vid "Women's Work" critiques Supernatural's misogynistic depiction of women as only being villains, victims, or vixens (http://blip.tv/luminosity/women-s-work-2317110). Fan edits and vids only use existing material, while fan films create new content. Fan films do not challenge the established hierarchy. This is why Lucasfilm hosts its own Fan Film Festival, providing the fan films an official home; such official forums do not exist for vids and fan edits (Jenkins 2006, 135). In fact, works that expand on the Star Wars universe are explicitly forbidden by Lucasfilm (Jenkins 2006, 159; Gray 2010, 165).

3. The Phantom Edit

[3.1] The first prominent Star Wars fan edit was The Phantom Edit, which circulated around Hollywood on videotape in 2001 (Kraus 2001). It is a typical Star Wars fan edit in that it was presented as an attempt to turn cinematic lead into gold (note 1). The Phantom Editor, aka Mike Nichols, has said that his intent was to turn Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) into a stronger film by bringing it in line with the filmmaking philosophy that George Lucas espoused while making the original Star Wars trilogy (Fausset 2002; Kraus 2001; Wortham 2008).

Video 1. "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Edit (Commentary Track)," by The Phantom Editor (2011).

[3.2] The main element that Nichols sought to adopt was an emphasis on story over special effects (Plinkett 2009b). As an example, Nichols completely cut the sequence where Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Jar Jar pilot a "bongo" through the core of the planet Naboo (Kapell 2006, 254; Rafferty and Snierson 2001). Additionally, he trimmed as much of Jar Jar's antics as possible and trimmed Anakin Skywalker's dialogue to transform his character from a young boy who stumbles through every crisis into a quiet prodigy (Kapell 2006, 254; Kraus 2001). What's fascinating about this positioning is that Nichols attempted to edit a film directed by George Lucas to make it adhere to the style of a film directed by George Lucas. This frames fan poaching of texts as akin to restoration, and Nichols presents himself as the equivalent of a young Lucas. His edit is more than a humble fan's revision of a disappointing product. It is the one true successor to Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983). This implies that Lucas is now unfit to shepherd the Star Wars franchise, and thus the fans must take control. This fan approach is a common one: fan poachers are often moved by a desire to protect a franchise from its creator (Jenkins 2000, 472). It also stands in opposition to many vids and other forms of fan creation, which embrace their marginality to enable greater creativity (Tushnet 2007, 67).

[3.3] The elements cut in The Phantom Edit are the ones most directly targeted toward children. As Jonathan Gray put it, fan-created paratexts work as "highlighters and underliners," which suggest a specific path through a text (2010, 154). The Phantom Edit thus supports interpretations of the film that deemphasize the importance of childish elements such as Jar Jar Binks. This reflects a broader critique that the prequels in general, and specifically The Phantom Menace, are too juvenile (Geraghty 2009, 114; Mason 2009, 86). This criticism's claim of legitimacy stems in part from the fact that Lucasfilm made a deal with Hasbro to produce toys based on the prequels (Bowen 2005, 12). The prequels' defenders use this as evidence that those who bash them simply failed to view the films through the eyes of children (Gray 2010, 184). These disagreements have led to the creation of two distinct camps: the gushers, who defend Lucas's recent work, and the bashers, who are critical of it (Brooker 2002, 97; Johnson 2007, 290).

[3.4] This discourse is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, The Phantom Edit represents one of these competing truths and acted as a clarion call to the bashers (Brooker 2002, 92). Second, it helped establish the niche of antiprequel fan creation. The very fans who sang its praises also promoted Red Letter Media. Of course, there is division even within the basher community. Plinkett, author of a YouTube review of The Phantom Menace, and others villainize Lucas, while The Phantom Edit's opening crawl characterizes it as a friendly disagreement. Nichols apologizes if his edit offends Lucas, while Plinkett curses at him (Plinkett 2009a). Fandoms write their own hegemonic histories, as this debate with the Star Wars fandom indicates (Johnson 2007, 287). The Phantom Edit's place within the fan community will be largely determined by which of these truths becomes the consensus.

4. The auteur strikes back

[4.1] The main barrier preventing these fan edits from reaching an audience beyond fan communities is their legal ambiguity. The production of fan edits requires the circumvention of copy protection, which is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Landy and Mastrobattista 2008, 28). Additionally, the distribution of a fan edit is by necessity also a distribution of significant portions of the original film, which is also illegal. Fan editors attempt to skirt this latter issue by insisting on two golden rules (Fanedits.com 2011). First, a fan edit should only be downloaded by someone who owns a retail copy of the original film. This rule goes unenforced and appears to be an attempt to avoid having content taken down by the MPAA, as happened in December 2008 (Young 2008). Second, a fan edit must be nonprofit. This latter point arose in part because Lucasfilm Ltd. has made it clear that they're ready, willing, and able to sue anyone who tries to make a profit on a fan edit (Zalewski 2002). George Lucas himself has even indicated that these edits are only problematic if they intend to generate revenue: "Everybody wants to be a filmmaker. Part of what I was hoping for with making movies in the first place was to inspire people to be creative. The Phantom Edit was fine as long as they didn't start selling it" (Balkin 2004, 8). Yet Lucasfilm contradicted this statement when they sent Nichols a veiled threat about The Phantom Edit, even though Nichols never sold a single copy:

[4.2] When we first heard about the [reedits], we realized that these were fans having some fun with "Star Wars," which we've never had a problem with. But over the last 10 days, this thing has grown and taken on a life of its own—as things sometimes do when associated with "Star Wars."…And, when we started hearing about massive duplication and distribution, we realized then that we had to be very clear that duplication and distribution of our materials is an infringement. And so we just kind of want to put everybody on notice that that is indeed the case. (Kraus 2001)

[4.3] Lucasfilm is primarily motivated by a desire to enforce its storytelling primacy, as indicated by Jim Ward's insistence that "fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is" (Jenkins 2006, 153). While fans are used to the existence of "rival truths" about a media property, Lucasfilm claims the authority to determine Star Wars's single valid truth (Johnson 2007, 287). This explains why fan editors work together in a spirit of collaboration while Lucasfilm stands in opposition to certain types of fan activity. This is a predictable response from a company formed in 1971, when storytelling was a one-way street and creators had little patience for poaching (Lessig 2004, 37; "Lucasfilm Ltd." 2011). This idea is further enforced by their long history of aggressive copyright defense, which includes lawsuits inspired by a wide range of fan activities such as fan production of erotic Star Wars material and a prop maker who worked on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and went on to sell unauthorized replicas of storm trooper helmets (Jenkins 2006, 155; NPR 2011). These legal defenses are based on the same idea of the auteur's primacy that animates their opposition to fan edits. Lucasfilm may produce and sell replicas of storm trooper helmets (Entertainment Earth 2011). Fans may not. Lucasfilm may produce edited versions of the films. Fans may not. There is no room for fan restoration here. The Phantom Edit is one of the few fan edits to garner mainstream attention. No other fan edit, whether for a Star Wars film or for another franchise, has even come close. The Phantom Edit was featured in the Los Angeles Times and reviewed by the Chicago Tribune (Fausset 2002; Wilmington 2001). Even though he eventually clamped down on it when its exposure rivaled that of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas was reportedly delighted by it (BBC News 2001).

[4.4] The philosophy behind the new Blu-ray version of The Phantom Menace and The Phantom Edit is the same. Lucas has returned to his film just as a fan editor would. The largest difference between the two is the environment in which they were produced. The Blu-ray Phantom Menace is not the theatrical film. The puppet Yoda featured in the film has been replaced by the CGI Yoda from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) (0neWayStudios 2011). Effects have been changed, and many shots have had their composition altered (DVD News 2011). If anything, these changes are far more extensive than those in The Phantom Edit, which relies solely on editing to tweak the source and create a new text. Lucas's auteur status and control of production gave his edit broader public exposure and claimed greater legitimacy, even though Lucas's edit has less in common with the theatrical cut than Nichols's: Lucas altered almost every shot, while Nichols only cut 18 minutes (Rafferty and Snierson 2001).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] In contrast to fan vids, which use music video techniques, and fan films, which work with independently created and produced content, fan edits are unique in fan production: they are the only form that uses classic Hollywood techniques to alter a Hollywood product for fan purposes—that is, they are the only kind of fan video production that uses the methods of content producers to subvert those very producers. Fan edits are often met with an unease and hostility that arise from a belief that only the auteur and auteur-authorized sources have the right to create recuts, as exemplified by The Phantom Edit. It remains to be seen whether this hostility will persist or whether fan edits are part of a surge in fan production that will reshape the mass media landscape.

4. Note

1. However, not all Star Wars fan edits are based on the prequels. Adywan (2011) edited the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) to update the special effects and make the film more consistent with the prequels. Some fan edits focus on alteration rather than restoration, such as The War of the Stars, which is an attempt to turn Star Wars into a grindhouse film (The Man Behind the Mask 2011).

7. Works cited

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