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Geek Force

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.

Little Scott was enthralled at first sight with the characters, the story line and the then-amazing special effects. Soon he had all the toys and played with them religiously, although smartly. "If we wanted to put a firecracker on a figure and blow it up, I'd make sure we used one of my friend's and not mine," he says with a laugh. "But Star Wars was what I had on my sheets and my shoes and my underwear."

As with most childhood pursuits, Chitwood's level of dedication to Star Wars gave way to other interests, and his precious toys were left in cramped boxes in a humid attic under Houston weather conditions not so kind to plastic toys. But for members of Generation X, nostalgia for childhood came before the end of their teens. When 1991 saw the debut of both the officially sanctioned Timothy Zahn novels that continued the story line of the films and the Dark Horse comics series, Chitwood and millions of others were sucked back into the draw of the Force. Today Chitwood collects a wide range of memorabilia but specifically wants to amass one of every action figure, in perfect condition and unopened packages for maximum resale value, though it's hard to imagine him parting with even one piece simply for money.

Theforce.net got a large dose of national publicity when Newsweek printed that it was one of the places fans could see the hilarious Troops, Kevin Rubio's live-action short film that mixes Star Wars characters in the setting of Cops. The barrage of hits caused not only their first provider's server to crash, but the next one, too.

"None of them knew what problems they were getting into, even after we warned them," Chitwood says with a chuckle. "They thought they could handle it." The site's current Internet service provider, based in Denver, is a bit more prepared, though the expertise does not come free. Thus, theforce.net accepts enough ads to cover the $3,000 in monthly bills and costs to keep it running, with any remaining funds going into further development or charity.

But despite the genuine fan-grassroots nature of the site and its directors' obvious love of the Star Wars universe, they don't have free rein with what they can do, particularly with the notoriously close-to-the-vest interests of Lucasfilm, which directs the semicompetitive official Star Wars site (www.starwars.com). But while Lucasfilm sent a crack legal team to shut down or cripple some sites (including several that specialized in Star Wars pornography), it has taken a much easier approach to theforce.net, even keeping in friendly touch with Chitwood and indirectly offering its help and support.

Only once to date did the site raise the ire of Lucasfilm -- when it posted unreleased audio samples of the voice of Jar Jar Binks, an entirely computer-animated comic creature who figures prominently in The Phantom Menace. Soon Chitwood and theforce.net's Paul Ens were on a conference call with some very powerful people who could shut the site down for good with the simple stroke of a pen.

"I was a bit nervous this time because we debated long and hard about [putting up the sample] before we did it. We thought something like this could happen," Chitwood remembers, noting in a later post that Lucasfilm's main concern was that people would form opinions of the character out of context (imagine if you had only heard Yoda, C-3PO or Chewbacca before seeing Star Wars). "But they were very friendly and very up-front about it, and it turned into a good experience for us. We had a definite line where we could and couldn't go in the future. And Lucasfilm was great. Most companies would have just sent in the lawyers and asked questions later."

In fact, Chitwood and some of theforce.net's team were invited to have dinner with their official site counterparts during the recent Star Wars celebration event in Denver, the ultimate fangasm.

More recently, when the site put up "Duel of the Fates," the new film's musical theme, in MP3 format for fans to download, it was ordered to cease and desist, according to Chitwood, by another body: the Recording Industry Association of America. After all, there are still records to be sold, you know...

 

Another topic of debate among the site's directors was just how much news and specifics about The Phantom Menace to put up and the consequences to fans who didn't want the whole story laid out for them months ahead of time. So they took great pains to blatantly mark all these "spoilers," even going so far as to force fans to use specific computer functions to get at the info.

It's a touchy topic for some: Chitwood knows of a fan who "freaked out" when he simply overheard that Liam Neeson was in the movie and actually covered his eyes and ears and sang to himself in the theater when they showed the preview for the film. This move probably did not endear him to Star Wars fans, who gladly plunked down a regular admission price to see just the 2-1/2-minute trailer, leaving before the main feature even started. Then again, it was Meet Joe Black.

Surprisingly, it's Lucasfilm that let out the ultimate spoiler: The movie's novelization, with complete story line, is already on the shelf. (Ah! The temptation rises again...) As for Chitwood's own plans, the head Jedi of theforce.net will see the film at the Tinseltown on Highway 290 when it comes out, "standing in line like every other Joe."

"This one will be like the first film of the last trilogy, a basic adventure story that sets everything up and introduces the characters," he says. "I'm just worried about someone walking in and expecting to see the movie they're imagining. You should go in expecting George Lucas's film. There will be parts you like and don't like. Even the most [die-hard] fan can pick something they don't care about from each film."

Like, say, the much-scorned Ewoks from Return of the Jedi? "Yeah, but little kids love Ewoks. And you know what? Star Wars was the most sophisticated kids movie ever made. People don't want to admit that."

Even today, the impact of theforce.net is a bit overwhelming to Chitwood, who is regularly recognized and feted at conventions almost as much as some of the special guests. "When you're sitting in your house typing away, you don't realize how many people will read your [words]. I mean, if I had to get up in front of 30,000 people and talk about it, I'd lock up," he says.

"The Internet has totally changed how information is spread. A guy who leaves the set of the movie and types something can have his observations on the Web minutes later to people who are dying to know," he says. "And you wouldn't run into people who share that [Star Wars desire] every day. Your neighbors aren't like that. Your co-workers aren't like that. But on the Internet, you'll find people who want to discuss what George Lucas had for breakfast that morning. It's your chance to be a geek. I like to say it's a convention that runs 24 hours a day.


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