Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meta on Fan Documentaries and "Star Wars Begins"

There are two kinds of media-fan documentaries. First you have the documentaries that are made about the fans themselves, such as "Trekkies," which explored the "Star Trek" subculture and "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," which charted the impact of the Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings" trilogy on the established Tolkien fandom. And then there are the documentaries about media properties that have been mounted by the fans themselves, usually without the official involvement of whoever actually has the rights to the films or television shows being examined. I've run across several of these floating around the Internet, including fan-made documentaries about "Firefly," "Doctor Who," "Return to Oz," "Johnny Quest," and the "Karate Kid." The two different breeds of documentary frequently cross-breed, such as in the "Troll 2" magnum opus, "Best Worst Movie," or "The People vs. George Lucas," but I mostly want to talk about the latter variety - the documentaries made by amateurs.

One recent example is the fourteen-part "Star Wars Begins" that Cinematical's Erik Davis has been raving about. Its creator, Jambe Davdar, describes it as an "unofficial commentary to Star Wars," which incorporates footage from the original film trilogy with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, deleted scenes, alternate takes, and bloopers. This is probably the most high-profile fan-made doc out there at the moment, and a unique case for a couple of reasons. Like all fan-made documentaries, "Star Wars Begins" is clearly a labor of love that was meant to fill an informational void left by the official production company. The difference here is that "Star Wars" has had several documentaries covering its creation already. You have Ken Burns' "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy," and the History Channel's "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed," each running at least ninety minutes apiece. I even remember "Star Wars" getting a good chunk of an episode of the PBS "American Cinema" installment that covered the "Film School Generation." How much of a void could there be left to fill? For a serious "Star Wars" obsessive, plenty I guess.

Another issue, related to the first, is potential legality problems. All fan-generated work falls into a gray area of intellectual property law, but most rights holders have no reason to go after fan-made-documentaries for obscurities like "Return to Oz," since the potential audience is tiny, the fan documentarians never make a cent, and the rights holders have little economic interest in creating their own documentaries. Also, in America at least, there are various exceptions to copyright for critique and informational uses that documentaries have a better case for than most. Most importantly, there's no real harm going on, so there's no reason to cry foul. "Star Wars" is a different matter. The Lucasfilm business empire clearly still has an economic interest in the kind of material covered by "Star Wars Begins," especially the footage that has never been officially released. As I mentioned in a previous "Star Wars" post, George Lucas and company still get a lot of mileage out of releasing bits and pieces from their archives, like the never-before-seen alternate opening for "Return of the Jedi," which will be included with the new "Star Wars" Blu-Rays. It could be argued that "Star Wars Begins" would lessen the value of some of this material by making a good chunk of it so freely available.

On the other hand, this bootleg archival footage has been around for decades, and any "Star Wars" fan worth their salt has seen it already. Lucasfilm is also much looser about fan-generated content than many others. They recognized a long time ago that unofficial, but loving fan films and spoofs like "George Lucas in Love," and "Thumb Wars" help to keep interest in "Star Wars" going. They even help to sponsor the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards every year now, though IP issues are probably a big reason why the Best Documentary category disappeared after the first year. "Star Wars Begins," which is a very complimentary, positive expression of one guy's passion for the "Star Wars" universe, is in the same spirit as other fan films. So, I expect Lucasfilm will happily ignore it as long as Davdar keeps emphasizing that the documentary is unofficial and doesn't give them a reason to ring up the lawyers.

After all, it wouldn't look very good for Lucasfilm to come down on someone for putting all this time and effort into such a geeky paean to the original "Star Wars." Frankly, I wish some of my favorite media fandoms could generate a documentary like this - or rather, generate the passionate, talented media fans that could generate a documentary like this.

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