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Next year Star Wars: The Phantom Menace celebrates its 20th anniversary. As that milestone approaches, discussions have increased about The Phantom Edit. Younger (and newer) fans may be aware of this unauthorized edit, but not know the details surrounding its creation. An essential understanding of the context of the time, as well as the intentions of the editor, is needed as the world once again is talking about Jar Jar Binks. This article is the first part of a three-part series.
It was a dark time for the Star Wars fandom. Years passed since the Jedi returned and all we had to show for it were some Ewok television specials. The more passionate fans sustained themselves with the novels, and the casual fans whetted their appetites by seeing the special editions re-released in the theater.
The Phantom Menace's marketing campaign kicked off with a perfect teaser poster. Since YouTube didn't exist yet, you needed to go to the theater to see the trailer. It played before three movies: The Waterboy, Meet Joe Black, and The Siege. I have a vague memory of trying to watch it on Apple’s Movie Trailer website, but not having a fast enough internet connection to download the Quicktime player to view it.
Tickets didn't go on sale until one week before the release. You could either wait in line at the theater to buy tickets or order them through MovieFone. To discourage scalping tickets, they limited you to two six-ticket purchases on one credit card within one week. When tickets went on sale, everyone in my office called MovieFone. If you got through, you ordered the allowable limit. We didn't care about the theater or the showtime. We praised the inventor of the redial button and kept calling until we heard ringing instead of a busy signal.
Long lines of people waiting for good seats surrounded the theaters. Some people dressed in costume, but the majority looked like regular movie goers. The excitement in the air was palpable. Once the movie started, everyone cheered for the Twentieth-Century logo, for the Lucasfilm logo, for the title scroll, and screams of joy when the first lightsaber lit up.
The Reception and Reaction
I walked out of the theater not hating it. I was high on a new Star Wars film, the final fight sequence, and the best piece of music John Williams created for any of the prequels, Duel of the Fates. Yes, I'm humming it as I write this. Eventually, my high ended and memories of trade disputes and underwater hijinks surfaced.
The critics' reaction was lukewarm (pun intended). The criticisms consistently listed: clunky exposition, comic relief that wasn't funny, and accusations of casual racism. On the flipside, the critics praised the technology, deemed it visually stunning, and said they enjoyed it. While it held seven Razzie Award nominations, it only won "Worst Supporting Actor, Ahmed Best." Everyone agreed Jar Jar Binks was the least favorite character and Jake Lloyd was not what people wanted as young Darth Vader.
Keep in mind there was no social media presence in 1999. Friendster and MySpace arrived on the scene three years later. Instead, people expressed their opinions through message boards. There was no instant reaction to the movie. It built up over time. The VHS came out 11 months later and the DVD a year after that. Once the VHS became available the more casual fans and non-fans, who didn't want to brave the lines got around to seeing it. By this point, The Phantom Menace was a joke of a film, and everyone worried about the next movie in the series.
Along Comes an Edit
Before any public mention of an alternative cut appeared, VHS copies of the movie circulated Hollywood for almost a year. Friends of the Phantom Editor received copies and passed them around to people they knew. The edit was intended as an intellectual exercise and not expected to reach a worldwide audience.
The first reference to The Phantom Edit was on EditorsNet.com entitled "The Phantom Edit Menaces Hollywood" by Erin Lauten published on May 16, 2001. Star Wars websites like TheForce.net carried the story until the rest of the world caught up with the news.
The news of the edit picked up, and two weeks later, mainstream media were making references about it. Conan O'Brien created a skit with text running on the bottom of the screen of text from a chatroom (like a Twitter feed now) and one of the lines was "Hey, do any of you guys have the new version of Star Wars: Episode 1?" The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Fox Trot, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and other websites carried the news or made jokes about it. Journalists like Andrew Rodgers (Zap2it.com) covered the story from different angles such as who created the edit, why, and how to find it.
At the time, the short version of the story was someone took a VHS copy of The Phantom Menace and edited out the annoying parts like Jar Jar Binks and trimmed down Anakin Skywalker's performance to make it a better film. There was wide speculation on whom the Phantom Editor was, but the guesses were filmmakers due to the quality and high level of work showcased. Kevin Smith was the primary suspect with Sofia Coppola running a close second. When asked on camera, both Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio joked they were the Phantom Editor. My favorite suspect was Henry Winkler because the idea of Fonzie re-editing a Star Wars movie amuses me.
The story continues with: What is 'The Phantom Edit'? Part 2: Controversy and Clones with a discussion about the legal issues and other edits coming forward.
The story concludes with: What is 'The Phantom Edit'? Part 3: The Editor Unmasked which reveals the editor's identity and the legacy left behind.