Who owns film? Is it the filmmaker who creates the characters and struggles to get it to the screen, or is it the fans who consume and support it? This is the fundamental struggle in the documentary The People vs. George Lucas.
Anyone who has attended one semester of film school is aware of the auteur theory. In this theory, the filmmaker is king, sharing their vision with the world. In this world, the filmmakers create, and the consumers consume. Modern technology is challenging this theory. Today, fans believe they have a stake in modern movie franchises, and many create their own web series and/or videos around them. We see the rabidness of the fans throughout The People vs. George Lucas. To many fans, the Star Wars series is the center of their lives, their raison d’être. As a result, they believe they have some, if not complete, ownership of the franchise. Thus, they have no qualms in asserting that George Lucas has betrayed the series.
On one level, this seems to be in an absurd argument. How can the artist betray their art? After all, he or she is the creator. It is their vision. Welcome to the new world of participatory culture—a culture where fans believe that they are the defenders of the true artistic vision of a series. We see this dynamic in action when Lucas releases the Special Edition of the original Star Wars (Stars Wars IV: A New Hope). In this Special Edition, Lucas adds new special effects and edits some of the scenes. Most notably, Lucas alters the scene between the assassin Greedo and Han Solo. In the 1977 version, Han shoots Greedo before Greedo has time to react. In the Special Edition, Greedo shoots first, misses, and Han shoots him in self-defense. Fans are outraged by this alteration. They believe that Lucas has sanitized the Han Solo character. They also find it laughable that a highly trained assassin would miss a point-blank shot at Han. As a result, many die hard fans start making and wearing shirts that say “Han Shot First.”
Fans’ disillusionment continues to grow as Lucas creates the three Star Wars prequels. This type of disaffection is typified by their hatred of the character Jar Jar Binks. Many fans see him as a slapstick buffoon who severely undercuts the importance and profundity of the Star Wars franchise. An impartial observer could argue that Lucas can create whatever character he so chooses. If the fans don’t like it, they don’t have to go to the film or buy the merchandise. This logic is foreign to the Star Wars fanatic. George Lucas may have come up with the idea of Star Wars, but fans believe that they are defenders of the series. This view elevates Star Wars to a near religion. The adherents believe that George Lucas was the original prophet of the faith who has now turned into a heretic. It is up to them, the true disciples of the Star Wars ethos, to defend the series from Lucas’s blasphemy. The self-appointed keepers of the faith use modern electronic technology such as the Internet to build an echo chamber for like-minded Star Wars fanatics.
Fanaticism towards an entertainment franchise is not new, but the ability of fanatics to reach each other at a moment’s notice is. Previous generations of fanatics were limited by time and space. They could form fan clubs, but they were limited by geography. They could read fan magazines, but they lacked interactivity with other fans. Today, thanks to the Internet and other forms of electronic communication, a Star Wars fanatic can reach like-minded people anywhere, anytime and engage in an interactive conversation. This gives them a chance to organize and form powerful, practical pseudo-lobbying organizations that studios must respect.
Perhaps the conflict between Lucas and these fans can be seen as the cinema’s version of the generation gap. Lucas represents the old auteur guard of a linear film process. The artist creates; the audience consumes. The fans represent a new model of film making where feedback from the audience plays a central role in the process. I see the battle between these two models continuing. Creators will want to bring their personal visions to the screen in the most pristine form possible. Fanatics will demand that studios pay attention to the expectations of the audience. The People vs. George Lucas is a great peek into the future battle between the auteur and participatory culture.