Ask, just ask, and people will talk. “Have you seen Star Wars?”
People will tell you how old they were when they first saw it. The ones who saw it in 1977, they’ll tell you that they cut class and stole away to the nearest theater, or their parents took them to see it, and it was the first movie that really, truly stuck with them.
I was five years old, and it was something my family shared. It was my dad who put me in front of the TV to watch A New Hope. By chance, the Star Wars Magic of Myth exhibit was in San Francisco when we were there in 1994, and it was my mother who insisted we visit. In 1999, my brother and I jumped for joy every single time we caught the trailer for The Phantom Menace on TV.
For me, Star Wars was always a family affair, and I didn’t realize how true that would be my entire life.
Actors, directors, writers, and producers, all of them say this: We wouldn’t be here without the fans. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Star Wars is one of the few pop culture properties that has truly, enthusiastically engaged with the fans.
Just how important are Star Wars fans?
Since 1977, Lucasfilm has had a Director of Fan Relations: initially, the person handled things like the official newsletter, Bantha Tracks, and the official Star Wars Fan Club from the late 1970s until 1987. To better engage with the fans online in 2004, Lucasfilm took the subscriber feature of StarWars.com and named it Hyperspace: The Official Star Wars Fan Club. With an annual membership fee came exclusive access to news on the website, and a subscription to Star Wars Insider magazine. There were also the Star Wars Fan Film Awards, encouraging fans to create their own stories and make their own little movies.
Beyond that, fans all over the world were putting together their own fan clubs and mailing groups and chat groups—the Internet helped bring people together. They just wanted to share news, connect with fellow fans, talk about the books and comics and movies, and really just geek out together. The forums were full of members from around the world, and international fan clubs popped up too.
So, imagine all the kids all over the world, kids who had grown up loving this space opera, discovering the Internet and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that they were not alone in their devotion. Suddenly, you had friends like YodaMan1981, whose real name or face you might not know, but you knew which trooper was their favorite, where they stood on the “Han shot first” debate, and which scenes they could recite from memory. The fan clubs brought fans together, and gave geeks a home where they could safely, happily, talk about everything they loved about Star Wars.
For me, it was Star Wars Philippines. I attended New Worlds, the country’s first science fiction and fantasy convention, in 2003: for the first time, I met other people who went crazy over lightsabers and blasters. I met other girls who liked Star Wars. Finally, my brother and I had other people to talk to about how awesome Han Solo was. It was like coming home. It was like our family had suddenly grown to include all these new people who had green skin or Jedi robes or breathed through a Darth Vader mask. And that family included the man I would marry seven years later, in a wedding that was, of course, Star Wars-themed.
For many Star Wars fans all over the world, the story is the same: go to a convention or a fan event, meet other geeks, join the club, discover friends from places you never even heard of. Meeting the love of your life? That happens a lot too: at Star Wars Celebration Orlando in 2012, there was a panel discussion on Star Wars weddings!
Creativity all over the world
Like the fans, the clubs come in all shapes and sizes and inclinations. There are the ones focused on collecting toys and memorabilia. Rancho Obi-Wan in California is one of the biggest collections in the world, owned and managed by Steve Sansweet, former Director of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm. Asia has its own share of collectors too. Jakarta boasts an Airbnb hostel full of Star Wars memorabilia. In the Philippines, the members of Pinoy Star Wars Kolektors display their treasured figures and replicas at events.
If it’s Star Wars and reading we’re talking about, look no further than Star Wars Reads Day. Held every year in October, the event is designed mostly for kids, not only to celebrate their love for Jawas and Wookiees but also to encourage reading.
Star Wars fans show creativity in so many ways. In Belgium, there’s a group called the Belgian Props Crew. They build large, often full-scale props, many of which travel the world and made appearances at conventions—and they’ve been at it for at least ten years now. They’re not professional prop builders, but they’re so good that Lucasfilm collaborated with them to build a full-sized replica of Rey’s speeder in time for Celebration Anaheim in 2015.
There are those who follow the ways of the Jedi and the Sith, and demonstrate their love for the movies by learning how to wield a lightsaber or two. Saber Guild is a not-for-profit, LucasFilm-recognized costuming group founded in 2006 in California that specializes in choreographed lightsaber shows. Fightsaber is another Lucasfilm-recognized lightsaber performance and costuming organization. Founded in Singapore in 2009, there are chapters—and performances!—in five countries in Asia.
But if we’re talking about costuming and Star Wars, we have to talk about the 501st Legion, an international group of fans who dress up as the bad guys and girls from a galaxy far, far away. The 501st has over 13,000 members worldwide, and at one point had members in all seven continents—yes, there was a stormtrooper in Antarctica.
Founded in 1997 by Albin Johnson, the club sets high standards for costuming, and every costume is as near to screen-accurate as possible. The members’ costumes are so close to movie quality that many official Star Wars events, anywhere in the world, feature the 501st. Anthony Daniels, who played C-3PO, said at Celebration Japan: “I have been to many places around the world, and everywhere I go, the 501st are there to keep me company.”
And if there’s a club for the bad guys and girls, there’s one for the heroes and heroines too. Founded in 2000, the Rebel Legion is the group for those who prefer dressing up like Jedi, royalty, and other good guys. There are over 4,000 members worldwide.
Meeting the Maker
For many fans, being a member of any of these clubs, participating in these events, attending an international Star Wars convention, meeting other fans and making new friends, that’s reward enough. But, many members of these clubs, by virtue of their dedication and enthusiasm, end up working in Lucasfilm and becoming friends with the cast, crew, authors, artists. Many of them work hard at conventions and events to make sure other fans have a good time. And George Lucas himself is grateful.
It was in 2005, during promotions for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, that Lucas saw the 501st in action. Promotional tours and events took place in many countries, and as the golden droid himself said, the 501st were always there. Lucas was impressed by the fans who dressed up as characters he imagined, and he wanted to say thank you. He wanted to put 800 stormtroopers in the 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade (commonly called the Rose Parade), an annual New Year’s Day event held in Pasadena, California. He wanted to include Star Wars floats and a marching band to play music from the movies. And he wanted to make a documentary about the 501st.
We didn’t know that when we got the urgent email in 2006. The email, sent by Lucasfilm to the officers of the 501st Legion, simply instructed troopers to wear their white armor and to shoot videos of themselves marching. So, we followed orders, and the next thing we knew, we were flying to Pasadena for a week of training in preparation for the Rose Parade. I was one of two troopers from the Philippines; there were ten of us from Asia. There were about 200 troopers from all over the world, flown in to Pasadena, just for the Rose Parade
Do you know what it’s like to spend an entire week with newfound family? To speak different languages, but to be saying the same thing? Have you met new people, only to be hugging them and crying with them less than a week later? Do you know what it’s like to meet George Lucas and to be absolutely speechless?
I was the shortest biker scout in the parade. The clone trooper behind me couldn’t even see me through the visor on his helmet. The clone trooper to my right kept bumping into me. The snow trooper on the other end of my row was a foot or two taller than me, and when we made big turns during the rehearsals, I yelled at him, “Giancarlo! Smaller steps! I’m only five-foot-two!” It didn’t matter how old you were, or where you were from, or how many costumes you had. We were all family.
New stars on the horizon
For many people, the characters of the Star Wars universe are family. Thanks to fan events and conventions, the actors playing the beloved characters, the crew who work on the films, the writers and artists who bring new stories to life, they become family too.
And when there’s a death in the family, it’s like the whole world stops.
In December 2016, Carrie Fisher passed away. Days after the demise of the princess-turned-general, her own mother followed. Only last week, Peter Mayhew left for his own journey across the stars. He was 74 years old, and he had played the beloved Chewbacca across five movies.
Many others are gone too: Kenny Baker, who played R2-D2; Richard LeParmentier, who played Admiral Motti (also known as that Imperial admiral whom Darth Vader Force-choked in A New Hope); Peter Cushing, who played the authoritative Grand Moff Tarkin (also known as the boss man on the Death Star).
Even the characters are leaving us.
Han Solo, survivor of countless hustles and chases, fell in The Force Awakens. Luke Skywalker made his final stand at the end of The Last Jedi.
The Star Wars we grew up with, it’s changing, evolving. It’s even outgrown its own creator.
George Lucas has had very little to do with the Sequel Trilogy and the Star Wars Story movies (Solo and Rogue One), the reins having been handed over to Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards, and Ron Howard. The ongoing and upcoming TV shows have been entrusted to the likes of Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau. And with new blood at the helm, there have been new faces onscreen who are important not just for the roles they play.
The Force Awakens was eagerly awaited not just because it the first Star Wars movie since 2005, but also because it was the first time the story would focus on a female character. It was also the first time that audiences saw onscreen a black stormtrooper, and female stormtroopers and officers. And it gave us a complex villain in Kylo Ren, whose motivations and actions grow more compelling with every movie.
Rogue One was the war movie fans had been waiting for, but for Mexican actor Diego Luna it was more important that he could tell his father, look, there are people in a Star Wars movie who sound like us. The Last Jedi gave us not only Rose Tico, the first major character to be played by an Asian actor. We also got Admiral Holdo, who was not only a female thrust in a position of military authority in the tradition of Mon Mothma and General Leia Organa, but clearly a female who older than everyone else. And Solo introduced curious, surprising characters like Qi’ra and Enfys Nest.
Even as new characters are causing debates among and eliciting cheers from audiences, beloved characters are being given life by new actors.
Alden Ehrenreich showed us how Han Solo managed to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. We met a young (I didn’t think it was possible), more dashing Lando in Donald Glover. And Joonas Suotamo took over the more sprightly Chewbacca scenes from Mayhew starting with The Force Awakens.
Star Wars is moving in new directions—sometimes confusing, maybe even alienating some fans. It’s a new era, and some people just aren’t ready to roll with it.
Whatever the fans feel, there’s so much to look forward to. A new season of The Clone Wars is coming to Disney’s streaming service later this year. The Mandalorian, starring Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame, is scheduled to premiere on Disney+ in November. And Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars theme park, is opening in Disneyland Resorts in California on May 31. It even has its own theme song.
And, of course, everyone is really just waiting for Episode IX. What surprises await fans in The Rise of Skywalker?
Star Wars changed history: through the movies, with its fans, across books, TV shows, games, and comics. It broke the rules and gave both audiences and artists new ways of telling stories. From the screen, it became a worldwide phenomenon that entered people’s homes and lives. It was something you’d never seen before.
And for Star Wars to endure for another forty years, it has to be something new again, something for new generations of boys and girls, storytellers and filmmakers, musicians and writers. With a new generation at the helm, on the screen, I think the stars shine brightly for this galaxy far, far away.