The big business of Star Wars queues.

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May 6 2002 11:28 AM

Studio Stormtroopers

The big business of Star Wars queues.

Two Star Wars fans in Seattle have been living in a 10-foot-by-20-foot tent in the parking lot of a Seattle theater since Jan. 1, waiting for the May 16 opening of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. If they make it to opening day, an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records awaits them for the longest wait in line for a movie. (They're chronicling their stay here.) Fans in Los Angeles have been waiting since April 4. New York's Episode II line opened April 28. In all, Star Wars fans have queued up in more than 21 locations in the United States and Europe, putatively to be among the first to buy tickets and view the film.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

But being first to see the movie clearly isn't what's at stake for these fans. After all, the average person will be able to see Episode II on May 16 simply by calling Moviefone or showing up at the box office. Granted, some rabid fans are doing it out of sheer ostentatious devotion. But for others, the lines can be sidewalk-borne mini-MBA programs for aspiring film promoters. These people aren't the simple ass-sitters of yore. They're conducting an intensive study in guerrilla advertising and Internet marketing techniques. The bottom line for these fans may very well be the bottom line. Consider the history of Countingdown.com, the organization that sponsored the watershed of Star Wars lines, the one outside Mann's theater in Hollywood in 1999 for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Lincoln Gasking, Phillip Nakov, and Tim Doyle created the site after meeting on a Titanic message board, where they cooked up the idea of a film Web site that would cater to fan anticipation of upcoming films. After promoting Titanic on Countingdown.com, they decided to try for a multiweek line-sit for The Phantom Menace. Sponsoring lines in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, then, they used the Countingdown.com Web site to promote the lines, leak Episode I-related information, and host live Web broadcasts from the Hollywood line.

In total, the three Countingdown.com lines garnered countless media mentions, served up 30,000,000 streams of video to Web users, and raised a total of $75,000 for the Starlight Children's Foundation, a children's charity that creates play zones in hospitals for terminally ill children. Line-sitters either donated money out of their own pockets or found sponsors in the same way someone participating in a charity marathon might. By hooking up with a good cause, the line-sitters were able to garner even more media attention and give what appeared to be an indulgent, slightly lunatic activity a semblance of good citizenship.

But the primary feature of the line wasn't people waiting on the sidewalk—there were only a handful on the day I visited in '99. The complicated point system used by Countingdown.com enabled fans to rotate in and out of the line to attend to real-world concerns like urination, bathing, and working. Instead, the main component was the tented media command center. Countingdown.com's promoters erected several structures on the sidewalk and crammed them full of Internet video production gear, directors' chairs, internet hookups, and other audio and video equipment.

The hard work put in by Gasking, Nakov, and Doyle paid off: During June of 2000, their Web site was acquired by Pop.com, a subsidiary of DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment. They would now be paid to promote DreamWorks and Imagine properties. Although Pop.com folded, Countingdown.com survives and draws more than 1 million unique visitors per month according to Nakov, who is now the official Countingdown.com spokesman. The site now strategically deploys lines that act as both marketing tools and charity fund-raisers for the Starlight Children's Foundation. For X-Men, they got fans to line up for a week in advance on a sidewalk outside an L.A. theater. Recently, they held a weeklong line for Spider-Man.

Though Nakov and co. were once enthusiastic Star Wars fans, they betray no trace of their former enthusiasm now that they're on another studio's payroll. (Episode II is a 20th Century Fox movie.) But other sites, such as www.liningup.com, www.starwarscampers.com, and www.waitingforstarwars.com, have taken up the gauntlet and are plugging Attack of the Clones with their own Web sites and charity initiatives. As for Nakov, he offers this viewing recommendation for the weekend of May 16: "Go see About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant. Absolutely wonderful movie. It's a real, real great film."

Andrew Vontz is a journalist in Los Angeles who is currently working on a book about electronic music.