It was 1:30 a.m. in Santa Monica, California, on May 3, 1999. Most people would be in bed at that point. But not Dan Callister, a photographer working for Online USA/Getty Images. He was on call that night when a tip came across the desk:
Leonardo DiCaprio is at a Toys R Us right now buying “Star Wars” merch.
“I literally couldn’t believe it,” Callister recalled. “I thought it was a hoax, to be honest.”
Despite his doubts, Callister rushed out to the Santa Monica toy store, making it in time to snap the internet-famous photos of DiCaprio’s toy-buying binge.
“Over the years, I’ve had crazy calls, but generally they’ve been serious news stories,” Callister told HuffPost. “I didn’t really expect that call and that early in the morning to basically see an A-list celebrity buying ‘Star Wars’ toys. I didn’t even know Toys R Us stayed open that late.”
This was “Phantom Menace” mania, and not even Jack Dawson from “Titanic” was immune to Midnight Madness, when Toys R Us stores were allowed to start selling the new “Star Wars” action figures.
It had been 16 years since the previous “Star Wars” film, “Return of the Jedi.” Suddenly, fans were set to be treated to three new movies chronicling the rise and descent of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, and they were thirstier than the desert planet of Tatooine.
“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” would go on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1999. It was predicted that 2.2 million full-time employees would skip work on opening day, leading to a $293 million loss in productivity, according to The Wall Street Journal. At the time, the movie was the second highest-grossing film ever, after “Titanic,” reportedly earning $924 million that year and more than $1 billion after rereleases.
After the first three films, franchise creator George Lucas had talked about doing other movies in the “Star Wars” universe, but unlike today, where the slightest hint of nostalgia is furiously mined in the search for box office gold, additional movies were never guaranteed. It’s telling that the working title for “The Phantom Menace,” the retroactive start of Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga, was “The Beginning.” The movie was in many ways a harbinger of fan culture as we know it now: expanded worlds, Easter eggs, canon tie-ins, post-credit teases, reboots and, yes, even backlash. The “Star Wars” prequels may not have done it all first, but they made it a part of our everyday lives.
Just look at the recent response to the final season of “Game of Thrones.” (Perhaps it was telling that Lucas visited the set.) Fans had speculated about the ending for years, hanging on every detail, only to be given a story they weren’t quite expecting. They didn’t think it matched the storytelling already laid out. All those passionate reactions mirrored what had happened two decades earlier with the “Star Wars” franchise, even down to the fan petition to change the writers. (Never mind the later fan petitions for Lucas to return.)
In 1999, it took a while for all the hype to reach Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, the pastoral home of Lucasfilm. “The Phantom Menace” was financed by Lucas outside the Hollywood system, so there were no shareholders or studio heads to answer to. For supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, the experience was like making an independent film, albeit “perhaps the biggest and most expensive indie film ever made,” as CNN noted in 1999.
Wood got his first real taste of hype toward the end of production, and it tasted a lot like Pizza Hut.
“They came out [to Skywalker Ranch] with a big pizza truck,” Wood told HuffPost. “They were giving out free pizza to everybody and the big cups had all the ‘Star Wars’ characters.”
The sound supervisor recalls that the crew members at Skywalker Ranch were treated to “Star Wars” cup toppers, including characters such as Mace Windu and Darth Maul. All the characters they had been working on were suddenly “plastered on everything,” according to Wood.
Thanks to a licensing deal with Tricon Global Restaurants (now Yum Brands), the trio of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, the Taco Bell dog and “Pizza Hut Girl” (Pizza the Hutt was already taken) joined forces to “defeat the dark side” of consumer spending. After the Pizza Hut cups, Wood started noticing more and more promotions all around Marin County. Other major licensing deals included Pepsi, Hasbro and Lego.
“Every single something had a licensing deal for it. And that was just that little version right out here in the county where it’s being made. Of course, it was happening worldwide,” he said. “It’s like dropping a rock in the center of a lake and watching the waves expand out to the whole rest of the world.”
Those waves were so big, they’d even reach galaxies (and future generations) far, far away.
Internet standom was still in its young Anakin form back then, not yet reaching the Darth Vader status of today. Early fan sites such as TheForce.Net were places to share pertinent updates, false “insiders” like the infamous SuperShadow trolled the fandom with fake news, and fans figured out upcoming character names by discovering the domains Lucasfilm had registered.
There were fewer resources but people weren’t any less fervent. Some reportedly bought full-price tickets to movies such as “Meet Joe Black,” only to walk out right after the “Phantom Menace” trailer. Fans waited in line for tickets for weeks, in some cases for charity. There was the first Star Wars Celebration fan convention to celebrate the upcoming release of the movie, the aforementioned Toys R Us Midnight Madness, books, collectibles, Pepsi cans, even an ill-conceived Jar Jar Binks “tongue sucker,” which is somehow more disturbing than it sounds.
Media outlets were jumping into the fray, too. With all the product tie-ins, The Hollywood Reporter called it “the first film that will make money even if nobody buys a ticket to see it.” Variety said it was “the most widely anticipated and heavily hyped film of modern times.” CNN wrote, “Unless you’re an especially sheltered zygote in the early stages of conception, I know as sure as I’m sitting here that you’ve heard about ‘The Phantom Menace.’”
But all this constant buildup also brought with it a disturbance in the Force: overhype.
“Nothing can live up to the expectations set by an industry with billion-dollar-lust in its eye,” Ty Burr wrote at Entertainment Weekly. “I repeat: nothing.”
The backlash began even before the movie was out.
For every Roger Ebert review giving it 3.5 out of 4 stars and praising its technological achievements, others like The Guardian called it a “star bore.” Variety said that with all the hype it could hardly help being a letdown on some levels, “but it’s too bad that it disappoints on so many.”
News footage from the initial screenings shows effusive fans and critics. Shaq even showed up and said it was wonderful, Leonard Maltin didn’t mince words: “I don’t think anybody’s going to walk away disappointed from this movie.”
Spoiler alert: That comment didn’t age well.
It wasn’t long before everything was being picked over by Force-sensitive fans and critics: The movie was too kid-focused, there was too much CGI, Jar Jar was “a combination pimp and Barney.” Worse, Jar Jar’s broken speech and clumsy mannerisms were even judged to be a racist caricature by some, which actor Ahmed Best and Lucas both vehemently denied.
The “Star Wars” prequels weren’t the start of the trolling or the toxic online fan culture of today, but they did boost those elements into hyperdrive. The pushback against the movie and the characters manifested itself in everything from bullying of the cast to websites such as www.JarJarMustDie.com.
In 2018, Best revealed that he had considered suicide due to the abuse.
“It came right for me. I was called every racial stereotype you can imagine,” Best said in a video interview. “There was this criticism of being this Jamaican broken dialect, which was offensive because I’m of West Indian descent — I’m not Jamaican. It was debilitating. I didn’t know how to respond.”
Perhaps the most poignant review when looking back on “The Phantom Menace” came from The New York Times, which said if you took away the unreasonable expectations, it was “up to snuff.”
A more measured take was offered at Skywalker Ranch, where Wood found himself in a position that any “Star Wars” fan in 1999 would have gladly been frozen in carbonite for. He was the first person ever to see the entirety of “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
According to Wood, editors Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith were each cutting half of the movie, and it was his job to go through the whole thing and find all the moments where digital characters needed to be recorded. But the significance of the task didn’t hit him until Lucas made a casual comment.
“I remember I had this big stack of three-quarter-inch videotapes when I was leaving the office, and [George] was just like, ‘You know, Matt, you’re the first person that’s gonna watch the whole thing together.’”
Wood immediately went into the cutting room and locked the door, jamming it closed for good measure. He also called his mom.
“I was like, ‘Mom! Mom! I’m the first person in the world to watch this movie!’” he said. “It was a very, very exciting moment.”
So what was his initial review?
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow. It looks visually different. And it was just telling a different type of story,’” Wood said. “But it was still such a world that you were being transported to, and everything felt like it had a history to it, and I just believed it.”
The sound supervisor deplores the personal attacks on Lucas and the cast, saying they don’t serve anyone. But he recognizes that when it comes to “Star Wars,” everyone has an opinion and for some people it’s like a “religion.”
Wood said that at the time, he didn’t think about the hype surrounding the film. He just wanted Lucas to be able to make the movie he wanted to make, and he believes Lucas achieved that.
“When you see ‘Star Wars’ being different than what I remember it being, that’s an adjustment. But then I put my focus and I made it into ‘I want to make the movie that George wants to make,’” Wood said. “Because I believe in his filmmaking and I feel fortunate to be part of it.”
While the prequels may have been criticized by the older generation of fans, who were busy putting phrases like “ruined my childhood” into the lexicon, for the younger ones, this was their “Star Wars.”
It’s easy to find stories from younger fans praising the prequels. These were the people now starting “Star Wars” fan clubs, imitating Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala makeup, using those Darth Maul cup toppers. (Hopefully, everyone was steering clear of the Jar Jar lollipop.)
After Best revealed how the bullying had affected him in 2018, he received a wave of support from fans and attended Star Wars Celebration in 2019, receiving a warm reaction from the crowd.
That brought a tear to Wood’s eye.
“The overwhelming positive vibes that came from the crowd were really rejuvenating. We put so much time and effort into those movies and seeing them 20 years later, and seeing the kids that grew up with them are now in their 30s, is fun to watch,” he said. “It’s kind of where I was when I came into working in the company. When I started here, I was a fan of the originals. That was my jam. And then to see that coming from the prequels has been really, really humbling.”
It’s been two decades since “The Phantom Menace.” Today, the hype is gone, as well as DiCaprio’s “Star Wars” collection, which he auctioned off in 2006. But from CGI characters who might not exist if it weren’t for the early tech used to create Jar Jar, to the ever-expanding serialized worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the passionate new fandoms finding space of their own on the internet, you’ll find a phantom presence around it.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Getty