Remember your excitement while watching the teaser for a new Star Wars movie for the first time? It looked like Star Wars was back in all its glory.
Murmurs of anticipation in the pitch black theatre. Excited shuffles of feet. Then the word “Lucasfilm” sparkles up on the screen, and the audience goes wild. “Yeah!” someone exclaims at the back of the room, as though they’d just spotted an old best friend they hadn’t seen in a decade.
It’s November 1998, and for many Star Wars fans, this is the moment they’ve been waiting the best part of five years to see: their first glimpse of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Ever since George Lucas had announced his return to the Star Wars universe, in an October 1993 issue of Vanity Fair, anticipation had slowly been building for the new movie. And here, finally, was a first look at what Lucas had in store. This wasn’t just another trailer – this was an event.
The excitement began when, after months of speculation as to when and how the first Phantom Menace trailer might appear, Lucasfilm made an announcement on Star Wars‘ official website. The first trailer would appear in 75 cinemas across the US and Canada on the 17th November – three days before its full roll-out in North American cinemas on the 20th. Further, the trailer preview would appear in front (and also at the end) of only three movies: Adam Sandler vehicle The Waterboy, three-hour Brad Pitt drama Meet Joe Black, and Bruce Willis thriller The Siege.
As a result, ticket sales for those films went through the roof. News outlets reported with bemusement as fans laid down their cash for a ticket to, say, Joe Black, sat through the trailer and promptly left the theatre without watching the feature. According to Variety, around 500 people bustled into a screening of The Siege in Los Angeles one afternoon, only for about two thirds of them to get up and leave as soon as the Phantom Menace trailer concluded.
“It is unprecedented for an advance screening of a movie trailer to attract so much curiosity,” the Washington Post wrote. “It is unprecedented for a movie trailer to have an advance screening, let alone one that’s covered by the BBC – but everything about Episode I has been unprecedented.”
The clamour wasn’t just confined to movie theatres. In those pre-YouTube days, the trailer was downloaded about 10 million times – then a record. The web also became the place where fans met and theorised about the contents of the trailer and what it might tell them about the movie – something those who queued up to watch the original trilogy between 1977 and 1983 could only dream about.
The fan verdict was overwhelmingly positive. And even now, the first teaser has a spine-tingling, mysterious quality. It gives away very little, but promises an awful lot: those quiet, opening landscape shots hinting at a familiar sci-fi world as we’d never seen it before, with the advent of digital effects allowing Lucas to draw his camera back to show us new exotic vistas. A contemplative shot of Queen Amidala standing at a window dissolves to a first-person view of a pod-racer in flight, as John Williams’ triumphant Star Wars theme blasts from the speakers.
Packed into the trailer’s two minutes and 11 seconds, we’re afforded only the briefest glimpse of a lightsaber here or a villain there – including a first, teasing glimpse of what Darth Maul actually looked like. It’s easy to see why fans were roundly delighted by it. Lucas himself was said to be “really overwhelmed” by the public reaction.
To Lucasfilm’s surprise, the second trailer had an even greater impact, especially online. The trailer first appeared on the web, and became available to download from the Star Wars website on the 11th March 1999. According to Jonathan Bowen’s book, Anticipation: The Real Life Story Of Star Wars: Episode I, 3.5 million people had downloaded the second trailer within five days.
It was, according to Steve Jobs, who’d made a deal with Lucasfilm to release the trailer via QuickTime, “the biggest download event in history.” The number of downloads would reach around 35 million a year later.
Through a range of media, including trailers, TV, toys and other merchandise, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox managed to create a never-before-seen level of anticipation for The Phantom Menace. The hysteria was a confluence of great timing and savvy marketing. The 20th anniversary re-release of the original trilogy in 1997 meant that nostalgia for Star Wars – and interest in seeing three prequel films – was at its height. The advent of new digital technology, as showcased in the groundbreaking Jurassic Park, meant that Episode I would look, in theory, bigger and better than any other Star Wars film to date. And once again, there was the internet, which allowed fans to exchange rumors and theories in an instant.
By May 1999, the stage was set for a major movie event: the triumphant return of Star Wars. Except the film itself failed to inspire the same jubilant reception as the trailer. When critics began heading in to watch preview screenings of The Phantom Menace that spring, the first reviews ranged from the tepid to the decidedly negative (“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual,” thundered Rolling Stone).
Of course, both fans and general audiences flocked to see The Phantom Menace; Fox may have been irked by the negativity of pre-release reviews, but the film continued to break attendance records through sheer momentum. But as Michael Kaminski, author of The Secret History Of Star Wars once wrote, there was an air of “understated disappointment” surrounding Episode I.
“This is my own memory of how your average viewer took the film when putting aside the hype and expectation: not a great film, lots of problems, but good visuals and action scenes and an okay time at the movies if you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy an imaginative popcorn film; a sort of typical summertime action film,” Kaminski wrote. “This, in my opinion, is what seems to explain the general feeling of resentment, negativity, and the terrible early reviews. Critics (and fans) were not expecting a masterpiece, but they were expecting something above-average, and something whose biggest strength was not eye-popping visuals but believably portrayed characters and a more reeling sense of drama.”
Shortly after The Phantom Menace came out, George Lucas suggested that his film simply couldn’t meet the weight of expectation – that the media attention had resulted in the prequel being “overhyped.”
“When you get in a situation like this,” Lucas told Starlog, “where you have such high expectations out there, the film can’t possibly live up to that […] I’m a little surprised at the amount of attention the film has gotten. We’ve tried very hard to not let the film be overhyped, but it got out of control and got overhyped anyway. There’s not much you can do about these things, really.”
To his credit, Lucas may well be right when he talks about the impossibility of living up to audience expectation. Where some studios may have released four (or maybe more) trailers and a series of accompanying TV spots, The Phantom Menace delivered two trailers. But it was all the accompanying merchandise and media coverage that made Episode I seem just about ubiquitous in 1998 and 1999: when the first tie-in toys went on sale, the clamor for them appeared on the news.
Lucas may not have intended The Phantom Menace to be as hyped as it was, but a piece of pop culture entertainment like Star Wars was always going to gain plenty of interest – especially from those of us who, perhaps naively, hoped for a movie-going experience that would fill us with the same awe that Star Wars did when we were youngsters.
Sixteen years after the debut of the Phantom Menace trailer, Lucasfilm previewed The Force Awakens‘ teaser trailer in a select number of North American cinemas – fewer, in fact, than in 1998. Not only did the trailer show in fewer cinemas, but the first promo itself was shorter, too: 88 seconds, down from the 131 seconds of The Phantom Menace‘s teaser. While this didn’t necessarily boost theatre attendances as much as we saw in 1998, it still ensured an enormous amount of coverage in the following weeks.
That The Phantom Menace didn’t, at least in the eyes of most fans, live up to the promise of its trailers, may leave some of us feeling a little more cautious this time around. But thinking about it, the sound of the John Williams theme tune and the swish of a lightsaber will probably leave us hyped up and once again excited about the possibility of returning to the Star Wars universe. Where there’s a new Star Wars episode, there’s always a new hope.