The force (and a lenient Disney) is with ‘Star Wars’ fan filmmakers
By Ian Prasad Philbrick
For the first time in half a decade, a year has gone by without a new “Star Wars” film, a planned pau-se that happened to coincide with the pandemic.
But across YouTube, there are plenty of movies set in a galaxy far, far away: those made by fans. Instead of the sci-fi saga’s familiar title crawl and brassy score, though, their work usually begins with notices affirming that rights to the story belong to Lucasfilm.
Such films have existed almost as long as the fran-chise itself. Early examples were spoofs, like the 1978 short “Hardware Wars” and a 1997 Stormtrooper-cen-tric sendup of “Cops” called “Troops.” Lucasfilm held annual fan-movie contests in the decade before Disney acquired the company in 2012. But Disney’s stewards-hip, coupled with the wide availability of higher-quality moviemaking tools, has inaugurated a new era of fan creativity.
“If anything, it’s been more alive than it’s ever been,” said one filmmaker, David Ortiz. “You have all these high-budget fan films that you didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago, and people have more easy access to things like VFX, 3D modeling and Blender,” a free digital ani-mation software. “I think right now, if anybody’s wanting to do a fan film, this is the time to do it.”
Far from the amateur, camcorder-in-the-woods aesthetics of some past efforts, recent productions range from intricately plotted live action to digital shorts made with motion-capture suits. Sometimes the monthslong passion projects of industry professionals, an increasing number feature props, special effects or original scores that approach studio quality.
Some filmmakers credit Disney with raising viewership for their tributes. A New York Times analysis of nearly 150 fan films on YouTube with at least 100,000 views found that more than 75% were uploaded in the six years since the debut trailer for “The Force Awakens,” the first entry in the latest trilogy. And several popular examples have eagerly built on the new films’ characters and lore.
But others chafe against Disney’s narrative choices. Some have revived characters and plotlines that the stu-dio dropped or that hark back to an older era of “Star Wars” filmmaking. In a moment of both broad excite-ment and deep disillusionment with the franchise, these works have flexed fandom muscle in a creative tug-of-war over whom the galaxy really belongs to.
“A lot of people were really frustrated with some of the films” in Disney’s trilogy, said Jason Satterlund, a professional writer and director who in 2019 made a live-action short about Obi-Wan Kenobi set during the Jedi master’s exile on the desert planet Tatooine. “We wanted to recreate the love that we had when we first saw ‘A New Hope’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’”
Satterlund called “Kenobi,” which has more than 5.7 million views on YouTube, an “opportunity to re-deem” the franchise for fans like himself. “George Lucas created something that we fell in love with so much that we don’t want it to be ruined,” he said. “If we sense that someone is violating that, it can have a very visceral re-action. And I think that’s what you’re seeing.”
Satterlund was quick to add that his short was not meant to stoke “negativity” toward Disney or impugn its narrative choices. But in YouTube reaction videos and elsewhere, audiences couldn’t help but make compari-sons. “People overwhelmingly said, ‘Wow, I haven’t felt that much emotion in this universe for a long, long time.’”
Ortiz acknowledged that enthusiasm for his pro-ject, based on a 1996 storyline that Disney de-cano-nized, came partly from disappointed fans. He said he viewed those reactions warily. “I don’t want somebody knocking on my door and saying, ‘All right, you’ve got to stop this.’ Because there is a history where, if you poke Disney too hard, they will come and bite.”
Disney said it has encouraged fan creativity and in-vited disagreement over its creative choices. “That’s one of the beauties of ‘Star Wars,’ that it sparks that kind of conversation and that kind of passion,” said a Lucasfilm spokesperson, Lynne Hale, “and we always welcome the debate.”
Moviemaking fans of other fantasy franchises have complex relationships with the companies that own them, and “Star Wars” fan films do walk a legal tightro-pe. Disney asks that they be clearly marked, not raise money through crowdfunding, omit copyrighted media, and not profit from ticket sales or online advertisements. The company doesn’t appear to discriminate between fan films made by professionals and those made by ama-teurs, provided they follow its rules. “There is a point where you do have to protect your copyright,” Hale said.
Disney’s ambitions to further expand the franchise — a raft of new shows was announced in December — may lead to more creative differences with parts of its audience. But there are also signs of mutual appreciation. Earlier, the company confirmed long-standing rumors that it would develop a streaming series focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Satterlund said he expected the official spi-noff to explore thematic terrain similar to his short.
He called that prospect exciting — and flattering. “It would be a huge honor if they used some of what we came up with,” he said. “Better, even, if they called me in. If Disney called and said, ‘We want you to join the team,’ I’d be there tomorrow.”