There has probably never been a movie as eagerly anticipated as the latest in the Star Wars Series, Episode I. There are five months still to go before the release of the film, but already every smuggled-out picture of a prop, every casting decision, every bit of information, no matter how tiny, is being pored over for clues to the meaning of it all.
This never used to happen with movies. George Lucas didn't do it. Even Spielberg couldn't have done it. The Internet did it. It is on the Internet that the legions of Star Wars fans, even more obsessive than Trekkies, have found each other. The Internet has enabled them to make their community hum like light sabers.
Lucasfilm isn't complaining. In fact, the official Star Wars web site (www.starwars.com) is a model of how to keep the fans hyperventilating with excitement as tidbits and 'behind-the-scenes' glimpses are trickled into the information flow. Visitors to the web site were able to see first of the one-sheet posters for the movie before they went up in cinemas.
A special November 17 series of screenings of the teaser trailer was announced exclusively on the web site, several days before it went on general release.
Cinemas around the country found a surge in popularity on the day of films which, to be honest, had been no great shakes at the box office. People were buying tickets just to see that trailer.
When a copy of the trailer was made available on the web site, nearly 400,000 people downloaded the 24Mb video file in three days. By now the figure is likely to be in the millions, especially if you also count the copies downloaded from Internet newsgroups and unofficial sites created by fans. Meanwhile, on those unofficial sites (try www.jedinet.com, or www.theforce.net) people calling themselves things like Senator Bail Organa, Darth Ludicrous and Lil Wookie are holding heated discussions about the significance of the colour of the Queen's dress and whether a double-bladed light sabre would be a good weapon. On September 25, when the name of the film was revealed (The Phantom Menace) there was fierce discussion on dozens of sites about what it could mean. So earnest is some of this that you'd think it was a Bible study group. Some of the Star Wars fan sites, like TheForce.net, get enough web traffic to be able to sell online advertising, such is the power of the Star Wars brand.
The filmmakers can build an unprecedented level of interest more cost effectively than they ever could have using conventional media. Why fight the cynicism of the critics and the rest of the journalistic community when the fans on the Net will wallow in any tidbit you give them, and then spread the word among their friends, colleagues and families.
If anybody doubted the power of the Internet as a marketing and PR tool, just go talk to George Lucas now.