HEAT VISION

For 20 Years, These 'Star Wars' Fans Have Camped Out for Every Film

A group of friends has lined up weeks in advance since 1999, sparking both ridicule and praise, and making lifelong connections along the way. As one member notes, "I've slept out almost six months of my life with this group."

It started with a late night phone call. It was April 7, 1999 — six weeks before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was set to open — and some kid on the other side of town was already in line for tickets. That was bad news for the team behind CountingDown.com, a movie news website that had been planning monthlong Star Wars campouts around the country. Now this kid in Westwood was going to beat them to the punch by two whole weeks. So the voice on the other end of that phone call had one question: How fast could Peter Genovese get down to the Chinese Theatre?

Genovese was a California State University, Northridge student who had signed up to be in the line after hearing about it online. He decided to ditch studying and head down to the weird, sketchy world that was Hollywood Boulevard, where he met up with Linc Gasking, the guy on the other end of the call.

Gasking was a 20-something Australian with a talent for computers. He had gained notoriety months earlier when he uploaded to CountingDown.com a camcorder bootleg of the Phantom Menace trailer. The grainy footage that Gasking had solicited from a San Francisco reader had the backs of audience members' heads. The sound was drowned out by cheering. But it didn't matter. The bootleg footage was for a time the only way to watch the trailer online. It propelled CountingDown, which was co-founded by Philip Nakov and Tim Doyle, from a few thousand visits a day to one that was clocking 100,000 — unbelievable traffic by the day's standards. It gave the site the geek cred to spearhead lines for The Phantom Menace in L.A., New York and San Francisco. Despite this pedigree, Gasking and his friend Genovese were technically the second folks in line for the Phantom Menace.

 

Eight miles west, at Mann's Westwood Village Theatre, 17-year-old Daniel Alter had beaten Gasking and Counting Down to the punch. Alter was a self-avowed geek who'd graduated early from high school. He'd grown up hearing stories about fans camping out to see Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the 1980s. He'd camped out himself a few years earlier, when the original trilogy returned to theaters for in 1997. But he'd never been first in line. This time would be different. He daydreamed about it for weeks, and on April 7, 1999, he and a few friends decided that tonight was the night.

The two competing groups — one in Hollywood, the other in Westwood — didn't know it yet, but that night would spark a movement that would become a national curiosity. Jay Leno would joke about the fans camping out for Star Wars — and even film a segment with them at the Chinese. Howard Stern had Genovese on his show. Popular newspaper columnist Mitch Albom would decry those in line as needing to get a life ("They will go weeks without bathing, sleeping against walls," Albom wrote). TV shows like Access Hollywood did constant updates, while international media — as well as well-wishers and prank callers — would dial in to a pay phone near the Chinese Theatre just to talk to the people in line.

On any given night, cops would cruise by, breathing like Darth Vader over their intercoms. Club kids would throw eggs in their direction. Fans dropped off food. The guys working the night shift at the Chinese Theatre would bring out a trash bag full of old popcorn to help sustain the hungry Star Wars fans.

Twenty years after Phantom Menace, there are children whose parents met camping out for Star Wars. There are married couples who met camping out for Star Wars. There is one couple who got married while camping out for Star Wars. And for the last installment of the Skywalker Saga, those people are lining up outside the Chinese Theatre, where they've been for the last nine days, waiting for Thursday's showing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

 
The media landscape has changed dramatically since 1999. The idea that people would camp out for Star Wars barely raises an eyebrow these days. The geeks have inherited the earth. 

The theater-going experience has changed as well. No longer do you need to camp out for tickets, and many theaters let you select your seats ahead of time. So why, in this age, are people still lining up? For these folks, it's about community.

"I knew I had found my people. It was the first time in my life I felt like I had belonged with anybody," says Jason "Grimlock" Thomas, who is believed to have logged more hours in line than anyone alive. "At this point, I've slept out almost six months of my life with this group."

During a Dec. 10 visit to the line outside the TCL Chinese Theatre, THR saw lightsabers, a (human) infant dressed as Baby Yoda and a man who styled himself after George Lucas. Gasking's CountingDown is dead, having only survived for that Phantom Menace line. In its place is LiningUp.net, a group that rose from CountingDown's ashes for 2002's Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.

As any veteran of the line will tell you, camping out for Star Wars is far more comfortable now than in the past. The Chinese Theatre allows the group to sleep in the courtyard, which is adorned by the handprints of Hollywood royalty. The theater provides a security guard and even allows the fans to have access to the theater to use the restroom.

A common question from tourists passing by continues to be, "Do you people have jobs?" The answer is yes. You don't have to be there 24 hours a day; fans check in and out via electronic wristbands that log their time. Time spent in line is a badge of honor, and those who log the most get the first pick of seats (and bragging rights). Any member worth their salt can tell you exactly what number they were in the last line. People proudly wear badges from previous lines around their necks, with the '99ers — as people who camped out for Phantom Menace are called — usually having the most. The fans also have colors on their badges to denote their spoiler tolerance. Red? That means they haven't even seen the trailer. Blue: They'll watch the trailer or any promotional materials released by Disney but nothing more. Green: Fire up those Reddit spoiler posts.

"When Phantom Menace came out, I spoiled myself crazy about it. As a result, I felt like the movie had already happened," says Stephanie Olmeda-Vance as she shows THR her red badge. "I'm never going to do that again. I just want to be surprised."

Since 2015's The Force Awakens, LiningUp.net has raised $25,000 for the Starlight Children's Foundation, via sponsorships, as well as the markup the group puts on tickets it purchases and then sells to its line members.

The group is older and wiser now. But like a Force Ghost of Yoda, stories from those wilder times in line linger. There are legends that are hard to verify. Multiple people recall that one year, a mysterious young man huddled up with the line for a few days and later ended up on the news. He had been arrested on suspicion of murder and, as the story goes, he had been hiding out in the line (THR could not track down a record of who this apparent suspect was.)

Other tales bubble up if you hang around long enough.

Let's travel back to April 7, 1999 — that first night. Back then, it was just American college student Genovese, the Australian entrepreneur-in-the-making Gasking and few people holding down the fort during a night that dipped to around 50 degrees, chilly for Los Angeles. It didn't take long for them to learn the ins and outs of surviving on Hollywood Boulevard — namely, the Roosevelt Hotel across the street, which had the best bathroom available.

"The next morning we had reinforcements come in," recalls Genovese of that night. "I could finally go home and know there were going to be people there 24 hours a day. But I just wanted to go back."

Across town in Westwood, 17-year-old Alter and his competing ragtag group was slowly attracting more and more followers. They weren't associated with CountingDown, but they generated almost as much attention. Alter, now a producer who co-founded the genre news website Heroic Hollywood, was semi-regularly quoted in the newspaper. People brought generators to power TVs and DVD players that would play Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas.

"We had Jeremy's Deli around the corner. If it's cold, somebody could go get a cup of cocoa," says Alter, who usually took the day shift since many of the folks could only come at night. "Early in the morning I'd get there. … There'd be more people to put in shift hours at night: their sleeping bags, their lawn chairs."

Though Alter's group had the bragging rights to being the first to camp out, CountingDown's leadership was innovative and ambitious. They were aware they had something potentially valuable on their hands and that an acquisition could be in the cards. (They were right; after the line, DreamWorks purchased the site and used it as its internal marketing arm for several years.)

With the Star Wars line, Gasking and his team accomplished big things, like live-streaming images from the line 24/7 via a web cam from a suite across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel. The site also put out a call for Star Wars fan films and received a cache of content kids had shot in the late 1970s on 16mm that featured wonderfully cheesy homemade costumes and props.

"We streamed all day, every day, Star Wars-themed shows interspersed with these fan films, which were just classics and hilarious," says Gasking. "That was the origin of what is now [things like] YouTube and Netflix. "

These sorts of attention-getting moves — and particularly, rumblings that CountingDown was angling for a corporate acquisition — didn't sit well with everyone in the line. So there was a civil war. A handful of people left to form their own rival line across the street from the Chinese for a few days.

"I totally hear where they are coming from, but they ended up jumping ship across the street for a couple of days, and everyone got back in line again," says Gasking.

As the media attention intensified, CountingDown members would get phone calls from around the world at the pay phone near the front of the line.

"We picked up the phone, and all you hear is these guys, 'Hey, we're calling from Scotland! We are flipping drunk, but we wanted to tell you that you guys are freaking awesome,'" recalls Sameer Bakhda. "We were getting calls from Japan, China. Europe. People who couldn't believe we were standing in line for Star Wars."

During this time, the Chinese Theatre saw the group as an oddity but a harmless one. After all, the line members weren't on theater property, and the group was bringing publicity as well as visits from actors such as young Anakin Skywalker actor Jake Lloyd and Ray Park, who brought his character Darth Maul's double lightsaber to the line.

Ultimately, the theater helped set up guard rails a few weeks before the movie opened to facilitate the group getting tickets when they went on sale — a tacit acknowledgement of their sacrifices.

The irony of all this work was the movie itself. The Phantom Menace was one of the most anticipated movies of all time, and ultimately a letdown to many.

"A lot of people were disappointed with how it turned out, but I didn't care if the movie was bad or not," says Genovese. "The movie was kind of icing on the cake."

"The incredible moment I'll always remember is the actual screening," says Gasking. "The start of the screening and the anticipation of that. Where there are beach balls running over the Chinese Theatre and people screaming. You couldn't hear any of the first dialogue for the first five minutes. It was like the Super Bowl of films. It's just unrepeatable."

Only, it would be repeatable. Seven more times over the next 20 years.

When Gasking and his cohorts sold CountingDown to DreamWorks after the success of the line, a few of the line members, including Genovese, decided they wanted to keep the fun going. And LiningUp.net was born. The "Latest News!" section of LiningUp.net described the group as "one not affiliated with a corporation like the first one was."  

Yet a corporation did come aboard the project, as a sponsor for charity. Netflix, then just a humble mail-order DVD company, donated $10,000 to the Starlight Children's Foundation in exchange for the line displaying a Netflix banner. 

Once again, the line was six weeks long, and the media attention was just as intense. Access Hollywood arranged for George Lucas to call into the famous pay phone, where the line member with the most hours was allowed to ask one question: What was it like to be the father of a generation? Lucas' answer wasn't even important, and if you ask line members today, they don't really know. The fact that the line had been blessed by the great one was what mattered. 

That second line featured some star power from another franchise. Lord of the Rings stars Elijah Wood and Sean Astin happened to be in the crowd at the Chinese Theatre as the LiningUp group walked in.

"They are in line behind us. I said to them, 'You guys are stars. Why are you not going to the premiere?'" recalls Bakhda. "They said,' We want to see the movie with the fans because this is the experience that we want.'"

Two years later, the gang got together for what they believed would be their final line for 2005's Revenge of the Sith. It was another six-week line that hit a big snag. In those days, only the Chinese Theatre or its nearby rival the Arclight Hollywood would get Star Wars opening day. Four weeks into the line, the organizers got the official word: Revenge of the Sith would not be playing at the Chinese — prompting headlines around the world about fans lining up at the wrong theater.

"This is the huge dilemma as line organizers," says Genovese. "We quickly came to the decision, this is where we've always done our lines, this is where we are going to stay. We're going to stay here at the Chinese Theatre anyway."

Steve Sansweet, then head of fan relations at Lucasfilm, helped arrange for the crew to purchase tickets at Arclight, even though they weren't waiting in line there. On opening day, the line was escorted down to the Arclight in style with the 501st Legion, a famous group of fans who dress as Stormtroopers.

"Everybody saw the movie there, the first showing, and everybody was happy with the help of Lucasfilm," says Genovese.

Then it was time to say goodbye. The prequel saga was over.

Life went on. Some people from the line kept in touch. Some didn't. Then, on On Oct. 30, 2012, a shock: George Lucas was selling Lucasfilm to Disney, which would be making a new trilogy launching in 2015.

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came 10 years after Revenge of the Sith, the group decided to forgo six weeks in favor of 12 days. Things were cushier now. The media treated them kinder and so did the Chinese Theatre, which now allowed them to camp out in the courtyard.

The Wild West days may be done, but there were new special memories to be made. The Force Awakens line saw the TCL Chinese Theatre's first wedding ceremony, with Caroline Ritter and Andrew Porters marrying in the courtyard. True to LiningUp form, the larger-than-life personalities made it memorable for the bride and groom. Line member Jason "Grimlock" Thomas yelled, "It's a trap!" as Ritter walked out.

By 2018, Darth Maul actor Park had been coming to hang with the group for nearly two decades. But none knew he'd be making a cameo appearance in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

"Ray was sitting right in front of me. When that scene came on in Solo where they show Darth Maul, the whole theater went nuts. We all went crazy, and I grabbed Ray by the shoulders and was shaking him," says Genovese. "He was loving it, to reveal that moment he couldn't tell us about."

***

In spring 2002, when Jett Lucas was 9 years old, he and his family happened to be driving by the Chinese Theatre. He peered out the window at the dozens of people lining up for his father's movie, Attack of the Clones.

What in the world does his father, George Lucas, think of these people who have dedicated their lives to worshiping his work?

"We've never actually spoken in depth about his opinion of my fandom. I think he enjoys it as much as I do," says Jett, a friend of the LiningUp and now a production VFX assistant on The Mandalorian. "I've spent countless late nights at home watching Star Wars till late into the evening, and he'll pop up, probably to tell me to go to bed, only to end up sitting down and watching through to the end."

Dec. 22, 5:11 p.m. Updated to reflect that Philip Nakov and Tim Doyle co-founded CountingDown.com.

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