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Playing with the Force

This spring, Technology Review staffers gathered to watch a new Star Wars film, directed not by George Lucas but by Shane Felux, a 33-year-old graphic designer and Star Wars fan. The $20,000, 40-minute saga Star Wars: Revelations begins after the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and chronicles the Empire’s attempt to eradicate the Jedi. Thanks to Lucas, Felux made a very Star Wars-like movie, with storm troopers, light-saber fights, and even Darth Vader. Yet Felux never saw a dime from the project. Lucas allowed him to make his film only if he promised to show it for free. Still, Felux got something out of the experience: a chance to hone his craft and get recognition for it.

Felux is hardly alone. Lucas has opened up part of his Star Wars universe for fans who want to make films. For the last four years, Lucas has endorsed a film competition hosted by AtomFilms, an online storehouse of movies, trailers, and shorts. This year’s competition drew more than 100 entries and has gotten so popular that the Cannes Film Festival recently screened 12 past finalists or winners. But Lucas is not condoning a free-for-all. All filmmakers, whether part of the competition or not, must follow at least two rules: don’t make any money from the project, and don’t harm the franchise (which can be a difficult rule to adhere to, since it’s not clear what Lucas thinks will harm the franchise).

While Lucas has ultimate control over his Star Wars intellectual property, he is giving up-and-coming directors the ability to test their chops in front of a large audience. (There were more than one million downloads of Revelations in the first week of its release.) And if more film properties are offered up for creative reuse, it’s likely that this network of filmmakers will grow until it is vibrant and sophisticated enough to produce not just more fan films, but originals like Clerks, which helped launch the career of the now well-known director Kevin Smith.

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