This is What Star Wars Fever Looked Like in 1999 Before The Phantom Menace

Friday, 06 November 2015 - 3:40PM
Star Wars
Friday, 06 November 2015 - 3:40PM
This is What Star Wars Fever Looked Like in 1999 Before The Phantom Menace
Is there anything that sends moviegoers into as much of a frenzy as a new Star Wars movie? Such is the power of the franchise, it seems that the majority of movie fans all remember their first Star Wars experience, whether it be watching at home on a blurry VHS cassette, or being lucky enough to see George Lucas's original movies in the theater. Last month, more memories were made when pre-sale tickets for Star Wars: The Force Awakens were released, prompting ticketing sites to crash under the weight of traffic generated from thousands of fans vying to secure a spot for opening night. 

Such an event was indicative of the times we live in, with the internet taking the brunt of the ticket booking load. But the crash did actually see a number of folks heading down to their local theaters to book tickets in person, something that was far more in sync with Star Wars launches of years gone by. 

While the reception to trailers and images from The Force Awakens have been overwhelmingly positive (we saw people crying tears of joy at Star Wars Celebration), many cynics have likened this latest bout of Star Wars fever to the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, no doubt hoping to suggest that The Force Awakens may end up being just as much of a disappointment as the last trilogy opener was. We're refusing to believe that, this will be the case, but you have to admit that it's starting to feel an awful lot like 1999 up in here...

In case you don't remember, the trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was arguably one of the best Sci-Fi trailers of all time, which meant that the already-palpable excitement surrounding the new Star Wars movies was greatly increased. The studio had slammed the airwaves with marketing and stores were churning out merchandise left right and center; Star Wars fever was everywhere.




Just like last month, The Phantom Menace crashed the smattering of movie ticketing sites that were available, while the more-prevalent Moviefone service saw a number of its lines balk under the volume of calls once tickets were released. But unlike today, the majority of fans had to head down to their local theater in person in order to secure their tickets for opening night. Thanks to a limit on advanced sales, the level of commitment needed to ensure you received a spot at the screenings was far greater than anything The Force Awakens will see.

Thousands of people camped out to secure their tickets, but it wasn't a simple overnight wait, and in some cases people were camping for more than 2 weeks as they sought to be the first in line for what they were expecting to be their greatest ever movie experienceMatthew Serna was the first in line for his local movie theater in San Jose. He would go on to wait in line for 16 days before he got his hand on the all important ticket. So if we ever hear anyone moaning about the lines at San Diego Comic Con again, we'll point them towards Mr. Serna for a good old slice of 'Back in my day'.

As the screenings approached, local news media had an absolute field day shooting footage of the sci-fi nuts camped out in front of their closest theater. This collection of segments from a Portland news station gives a good sense of just how hyped people were for the movie. Just look at all the haircuts, too.


But it wasn't just the local news stations that got caught up in the frenzy. TheNew York Times reported on some 3,000 people who lined up for tickets, noting that the range of people frequenting the line was as vast as diverse as the Mos Eisely cantina...

Opening quote
Aside from the paraphernalia of a long wait, the ticket seekers had few common traits. There were boys playing Dungeons and Dragons. There were people with multiple nose rings, and others slouched in the dishabille of grunge. There were academic types, like one quiet man reading a religious text as he waited with his briefcase between his feet.
Closing quote



(The first in line at New York's Ziegfeld Theater)


In the end, The Phantom Menace went on to drag in $64 million from its opening weekend, before going on to secure $431 million over the course of its domestic run. But how did moviegoers feel after all the hype? 

Despite its almost universal derision from fans, most people emerging from the theaters were largely positive about the experience.

Heck, even the media seemed to love it...

It's an interesting task to try and pinpoint exactly when popular opinion started to turn on The Phantom Menace; was it a gradual decline or did certain reviews trigger a landslide? In the end, it seemed as though Phantom Menace simply couldn't meet the expectation that went before it. The original trilogies were (and still are) held in lofty regard, and after such a lengthy wait for a new installment, it's hard to imagine George Lucas ever succeeding in matching fan's expectations. 

This seems to be a sentiment that is also felt by one of the prequel trilogies greatest stars, Ewan McGregor. McGregor says that it was because the Star Wars fan base had grown up that the movies didn't elicit that same childish joy that the originals conjured up.

Opening quote
I watched it once, at the premiere, so I'm not in a good position to judge. They had a tall order, the three films I did. The fans waited so long and wanted to feel like they did when they watched the first film, but they were grown-ups by that time. I don't mind the criticism. I've heard it to my face.
Closing quote

Despite these lessons from history, I still find my expectations spiralling out of control, refusing to believe that The Force Awakens will be a similar experience to that of 1999. It's going to be different, it has to be different....doesn't it?
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