Imitation Is Silliest Form of Flattery


Nearly 50,000 people logged on to one day last month, hoping to get an early glimpse of the second trailer for "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace." But instead of seeing new bad guy Darth Maul's double-edged light-saber they saw . . . Yoda holding a bag of Cheesy Poofs.

Welcome to the universe of "Star Wars" spoofs.

Instead of the trailer, what users had downloaded from the premier "Star Wars" fan site was "Park Wars: The Little Menace," a fully animated, shot-for-shot parody of the first "Phantom Menace" trailer, with "South Park" characters replacing the real cast--Stan is Obi-Wan, the Chef is Mace Windu, Cartman is Yoda, Kenny is Jar Jar (yes, he gets killed). The two-minute "Park Wars" parody is just one of a slew of "Star Wars" spoofs popping up on the Web as excitement builds for the release of "Phantom Menace" on May 19.

"Star Wars" parodies have been around for more than 20 years--most notably "Hardware Wars," a short film released in 1977, the same year as the original film. But the newer ones, which have been proliferating on the Web recently, feature the kind of digital special effects that would have been impossible to create even a few years ago.

These parodies, particularly "Park Wars," have become immensely popular with the "Star Wars"-crazed Internet audience--and even garnered the attention of Hollywood.

"There's more and more of them coming online all the time, mainly because a [group] of people who are interested in 'Star Wars' are technical people, and now you can pick up a piece of software off the Net and create your own movies overnight," said news editor Lincoln Gasking, 22, of Melbourne, Australia, who started waiting in line for "Phantom Menace" outside the Mann Chinese theater in Hollywood six weeks before the film will open.

Gasking and a team of three animators and artists made "Park Wars" over a weekend, communicating and creating over the Internet. The short, which was downloaded more than 140,000 times by its second day on the Web, can now also be found on the Comedy Central Web site. (The TV show "South Park" is seen on Comedy Central; its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had nothing to do with "Park Wars.")

Besides "Park Wars," some of the most popular and innovative parodies on the Web include:

* "Troops"--An effects-laden cross between "Star Wars" and the reality-based TV show "Cops," starring a Federation storm trooper with an accent right out of "Fargo."

* "Quentin Tarantino's 'Star Wars' "--A short film in the style of the neo-noir director featuring vintage Kenner action figures and a slow-motion scene called "Reservoir Droids."

* "Trooper Clerks"--A black-and-white parody of Kevin Smith's "Clerks," complete with storm troopers as clerks.

* "The Odd 'Star Wars' Couple"--A humorous takeoff on the Neil Simon play featuring Darth Vader and Chewbacca in the roles of Oscar and Felix.

"What's beginning to happen with fans who put their films on the Internet is that the learning curve is much faster," noted Harry Knowles, 27. Knowles runs the Ain't It Cool News site, which supplies insider news and gossip about movies.

"Because they can digitize it, they can get instant reaction. People send you e-mails immediately. It's not like that with feature films, where it takes a long time to get feedback."

The initial wave of fan-made films was inspired by the re-release of the "Star Wars" trilogy in 1997. According to some estimates, there are now hundreds of "Star Wars" spoofs in circulation in cyberspace, made by everyone from high school students to Hollywood special-effects wizards.

In a few cases, these parodies have given their creators a leg up in the industry. Such was the case with "Troops" creators Kevin Rubio, 31; Shant Jordan, 31; and Patrick Perez, 29, who have parlayed their success on the Internet into a development deal with USA Network for a futuristic cops show.

At Lucasfilm in Northern California, where there have been lunchtime screenings of "Troops" and other parodies, the reaction to these fan films has been relaxed--even amused.

"We just realized very early on that these are the guys," said Jeanne Cole, a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm. "They're our fans, where would we be without them? This is why we are where we are, and why 'Star Wars' has lasted over 20 years."

Besides, she noted, Lucasfilm puts up its trailer on its official "Star Wars" Web site for anyone to download. "There it is, frozen in time and it isn't exclusive anymore."

Parodies are protected from copyright laws in most cases, and Lucasfilm has taken a lax attitude toward fan-made films, as long as the filmmakers aren't making any money from them. At the Mos Eisley Multiplex site--which takes its name from the desert town on the planet Tatooine where Luke and Ben meet up with Han Solo and Chewbacca in "Star Wars"--viewers can find information, stories and links to more than 30 short "Star Wars" parodies and fan-made films. Many of them are impressively professional--especially given that they're often made for almost no money.

Indeed, many filmmakers are able to make top-quality shorts using off-the-shelf software and a computer. Gasking and his team made "Park Wars" using readily available animation, composing and editing programs. The "Troops" people used a souped-up home computer. And "Tarantino" creator Evan Mather, a 29-year-old landscape architect from Seattle, used modeling and stop-motion programs for his action-figure shorts.

"What this shows is that ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] better watch out because they're spending $15 million, $20 million, $30 million to do effects, and we can do them in the middle of a work schedule in three days at home," said "Troops" co-creator Jordan, who worked on special effects for "The Crow," among other features.

"As long as you have the skill and the will, there's a way. It's not necessarily who you are, or where you work or how deep your pockets are."

Jason Wishnow, 25, who produced "Tattoine or Bust," an acclaimed short documentary about camping out for the 1997 re-releases, notes: "Filmmakers, many of whom grew up on 'Star Wars,' are now coming of age at a time when new technology offers the ability to create and distribute films of high quality at low cost."

A flood of fan-made films is expected to hit the Internet in the next weeks leading up to the release of "Phantom Menace." The Web site for AtomFilms, a short-film distribution company based in Seattle, is holding a "Makin' Wookiee" contest. The site is inviting submissions until May 7 for a short screenplay for a "Star Wars" parody, which will then be directed by Mather and Wishnow, and will premiere on the AtomFilms' site. And the site is also accepting shorts for its launch of Countdown TV, a virtual television show featuring live broadcasts and fan-made films.


Spoofing 'Star Wars' in Cyberspace

"Star Wars" spoofs and shorts are showing up all over the Web. Download times generally range from 5 to 10 minutes, though some can take as long as an hour, depending on the speed of your computer. Here are the addresses of some of the most popular sites:

* Countdown: The Ultimate Fan Site featuring "Park Wars: The Little Menace"

* Mos Eisley Multiplex featuring links to more than 30 films, including: "Trooper Clerks" and "The Odd 'Star Wars' Couple"

* featuring "Troops"

* JediNet featuring Evan's Star Wars Cinema: "Quentin Tarantino's 'Star Wars,' " "Godzilla vs. Disco Lando" and "Kung Fu Kenobi's Big Adventure"

* AtomFilms featuring a clip from "Hardware Wars" and other fan-made "Star Wars" shorts

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