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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' has roused theater campers too

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' has roused theater campers too
"Star Wars" fan Gerard Christian Zacher camps out at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for the "Star Wars" premiere 10 days in advance on Tuesday. (Christina House / For The Times)

Among the panhandlers and costumed characters of Hollywood Boulevard, a line of lawn chairs, body pillows and extension cords stretch from the door of the TCL Chinese Theatre Imax. Tucked away in a corner, his head buried in a bowl of noodles, is Nicholas Johnson.

He's been in this line for over 24 hours with his dog Popcorn in tow, anticipating "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," in theaters Dec. 17. And though camping out for movie premieres is often seen as a pastime, with most theaters having reserved seating, tradition and the fan base's camaraderie necessitates the action.

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"It's not just about the film. It's everything," Johnson said, a gold "Star Wars" Stormtrooper helmet hanging from his neck. "If you're here, you're a part of an experience. [Just wanting to see the movie] is like going to Thanksgiving and even though you may dislike your family, you can't say you're just there for the turkey."

The line began last Saturday, nearly two weeks before the film's release. It was planned by liningup.net, a group of fans who staged previously successful lines for the franchise's prequels. By Monday afternoon, 130 people were participating. The way it works? The group purchased a large amount of seats for the theater's first showing the night of Dec. 17. Fans can get a ticket from that lot by spending at least 24 hours in the line. But for those who have jobs, they can sign out and pick back up later.

This is Johnson's second time participating, the first being for the 2005 installment of the franchise. That's when he met a slew of other fans who he says have become like a family for him.

"I haven't seen these people in 10 years, but it's great to have this chance to reconnect," he said.

While in line, he and the others talk about subjects like the earlier films, the absence of director George Lucas' participation with the latest installment, and the toys and other "Star Wars" merchandise. Keeping mum, however, during some of the more current topics, such as the anticipated film's trailer, is a 41-year-old Navy veteran who goes by the name Tibs. True to the old-school experience when trailers weren't needed to promote films, and therefore slightly spoil them, he wants to see it all unfold on the screen.

"You don't get the full feel on TV," the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native said, having spent just a couple of hours in line. "It's the sound. It's 70% of the film and it will drive you nuts [if it's not right]. I want to experience it all on film for the first time."

Early fans take a seat 10 days before "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" hits screen, camping in Hollywood.

Throughout the day, the line is less active because many of the campers have day jobs. Upon nightfall, the environment livens up as people return to the theater to commune and log their hours.

Thousands of others have stood in lines in years past, said Levi Tinker, the TCL's director of tours. This year's group is following in that tradition.

"This isn't anything new for us, going back to the early 'Star Wars' days," he said. "This has been the place for fans to come and experience [all of] the movies."

The TCL, to much of the fan base, is as integral to the franchise as are its characters. The theater was the first to play the original "Star Wars" in May 1977 and held handprint ceremonies with R2-D2 and other luminaries from the "Star Wars" franchise, both droid and humanoid. Back then, fans would camp out as early as six weeks ahead, said Tinker, and on Hollywood Boulevard.

This year, the line is housed within the TCL courtyard. The theater also allows campers to use its bathrooms. Tents can be erected between midnight and 6 a.m.

Caroline Ritter, who's a part of the core organizing group, has been camped out since the first day. In addition to the tradition, she cites the group's charitable motivation in support of the Starlight Children's Foundation for why she and others ultimately decide to camp out given technological advances around seating reservations. Signs are posted throughout the line encouraging passersby to text a number to donate.

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"Last time we did this, we raised over $30,000 for charity," she said. "We're hoping we can make a good dent in that. So, this is a chance to hang out with family and friends and do a good deed at the same time."

But the campers know people judge them, to which Tibs responds simply: "This is what we like, what we enjoy. This is part of us. I don't want to say we should pity those people, but they just don't understand."

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