'Rocketeer' 20th Anniversary Reunion Causes a Stir in Hollywood

"I knew that people would eventually love this movie," director Joe Johnston joked Tuesday at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the opening of The Rocketeer. The 1991 flick was an adaptation of a cult retro comic created by Dave Stevens about a man who finds himself in possession of a jetpack and runs afoul of Nazis and mobsters.

And love it people do, if the evening was any indication. Hundreds packed the El Capitan Theater for the screening, stayed enraptured during a Q&A moderated by Rocketeer fan Kevin Smith, then headed to the Hollywood Museum to jostle for a chance to see props and costumes from the movie and buy special merchandise available for one night only at the event put on by D23, the Disney fan club.

Some even showed up in Rocketeer garb, causing small swarms and lively chatter.

The only noise The Rocketeer made back in 1991, however, was the nyrrr of a nosedive as the $42 million-budgeted movie bombed at the box office. The movie made $46 million but Touchstone, the Disney label, had zeppelin-sized hopes for it. At the time, the movie was considered a disaster.

But as years flew by, the movie, perhaps due to the timeless feel of its 1938 setting or its surprisingly earnest heroics, began attracting passionate followers, especially in the past decade. Those who saw it at key ages were profoundly affected. Certain studio development execs now cite the movie as a key influence.

During the Q&A with Johnston, star Bill Campbell, writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, artist William Stout and make-up guru Rick Baker, Smith called it "the finest comic book adaptation, I've felt, of all time."

Smith continued: "You pull off something like this today, people go, 'Well, yeah, it's popular now.' You (Johnston) pulled this off 20 years ago, when nobody was making anything but maybe Batman. And you were able to step in and make an elegant film."

Like many comic book movies, it had an inauspicious debut.

Bilson and De Meo found the Rocketeer comic at the Golden Apple comic book store on Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue during a lunch break from a nearby movie studio where they were working on B movies. Steve Miner, at the time a director of Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, had an option on the book but it ran out. When the duo showed their low-budget flick Zone Troopers to Stevens, he gave them a free option.

It would be another six years before the movie would get made. Its premiere in June 1991, which featured a ferris wheel on Hollywood Boulevard, was also the grand re-opening of the El Capitan Theatre, which Disney had bought and restored.

But the luster on the movie didn't last.

"There was a lot of talk of a sequel on June 20, 1991, but there wasn't any on the 22nd," recalled Johnston, whose latest movie is this summer's Captain America: First Avenger, a movie that fans hope will be infused with many of the Rocketeer's sensibilities.

Tuesday's ferver and excitement was something to behold. Some in attendance said it was like being at a mini-Comic-Con. Rocketeer serves as that rare example of a movie that slowburns to life years after being rejected.

Among those in the crowd were Hollywood writers and execs, as well as actor Thomas Jane, who showed up in Rocketeer costume topped by a helmet.