By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Here's something you might find interesting," Scott Chitwood says, reaching down to a bottom shelf and handing over a beat-up, plain white three-ring binder.
"Interesting" is a huge understatement. "The Beginning. By George Lucas." A quick flip through the well-photocopied pages inside, obviously pecked out on a manual typewriter, only confirms my suspicion: I am holding the top-secret shooting script for The Phantom Menace, guarded with more secrecy than our nation's nuclear secrets (err... maybe that's a bad analogy).
"I've had it for over a year. A friend sent it to me. I know everything that's going to happen in the movie," he says with a sense of wonder. "Do you want to take a look at it?"
I look over at the life-size cut-out of bounty hunter Boba Fett, then to the rare R2-D2 cookie jar that sits watchfully above Chitwood's computer desk. What should I do? I close my eyes to summon the power of the Force, and in a burst of enlightenment my path is clear. I slide the binder back into its home on a bottom shelf. I'll wait for the movie.
"Tough choice," Chitwood notes, a grin breaking out across his face. "Tough choice."
The room, which is the only one sporting a Star Wars theme in the northwest Houston home that Chitwood shares with his wife and three-week-old daughter, is a surprisingly modest base for the co-creator of a Web site (www.theforce.net) that's a daily destination for any True Fan, receiving approximately 30,000 hits a day from around the world and generally considered the best of its kind.
Chitwood opens his e-mail on the computer with which he helps direct the Web site's content. "I checked this a couple of hours ago, and already I've got 42 new messages," he notes, shaking his head. It's only a portion of the 400 or so he'll receive on a average day during the weeks just prior to the release of the movie, and those aren't even the media contacts -- a producer from ABC's 20/20 calls a few minutes later.
It's a long way from the day in 1996 when Texas A&M students Chitwood and roommate Darin Smith put up a small Star Wars page on a school server. Inspired by a presentation that Lucasfilm made at the college to hype the upcoming rerelease of the first trilogy, they thought they'd chat a bit with fellow Star Wars fans as a lark, but they soon found the response overwhelming.
After graduation (Chitwood, a civil engineer major, who now works for Shell Deepwater), the pair decided to keep the site going, putting up theforce.net in the fall of 1997. To ease the workload, they brought on a group of fellow fans, each an expert in either a particular area of Star Wars fandom or computer work, from as far away as the Netherlands. They would each write, edit, build and control the graphics for the site cooperatively from their home computers, a system which continues to this day.
"We've got a wide range of talents on the page. Great designers, artists and writers," he says, adding that at least one has even found permanent work at Lucasfilm as a result of her artwork for the site. But the majority of posts and information come from hundreds of fans, as Chitwood and his Jedi Council sift through what to actually post. "You'll notice that nowhere on the site do we say, 'send us your news,' " he says dryly. "It's all unsolicited, but that's one of the things that makes the thing work. It's like we have [hundreds] of reporters out there."
And indeed, there are enough categories and subcategories to click on to keep one occupied for hours. Well-marked sections allow access to daily Star Wars news, discussion forums, interviews, trivia and editorials. There are sections for Star Wars toy and comic collectors, gamers and readers. There's also fan art and fiction, a calendar of events, multimedia and even a humor page that allows fans to write their own captions for movie stills and contribute to "Top 10 lists." And finally, related links or sites allow browsers to click on features including a complete Star Wars time line, a kid's page or computer graphics.
But perhaps the most thorough (and downright frightening) section is the one on Technical Commentaries. Here, armchair Han Solos, Carl Sagans and Popular Mechanics readers have created blueprints for the Death Star, X-Wing engine dissections and academic-level essays on how hyperspace really could work. One contributor even argues that the entire race of Ewoks was probably made extinct by environmental changes on the planet Endor after Jedi.
On second thought, maybe that wouldn't have been so bad...
Native Houstonian Scott Chitwood first became a Star Wars fan in 1977 at age four. That's when his father took him to see the first film in a theater off FM 1960, although there was a one little catch:
"I had this loose tooth, and my father told me that if he could pull it out, he would take me to the movie. I knew it was going to hurt, so I said no." But when his dad, who may have wanted to see the movie himself, yanked the offending tooth, holding it triumphantly in the air and pronouncing, "Great! We're going to see Star Wars!" Chitwood wiped his tears and went along.