Fists fly as Star Wars mania hits America

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The Independent Online
THE RELEASE of the hotly awaited new Star Wars film may still be two tantalising weeks away, but for the fans cramming the pavements outside American cinemas and rushing to buy toys and merchandise, a different kind of war has already broken out.

After several weeks of orderly queuing and camaraderie outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, a fight broke out earlier this week as a group of hard-core fans complained they were being forced to sit in a rubbish-strewn car park to make room for a state-of-the-art Internet 24- hour broadcasting system donated by one of many groups trying to cash in on the frenzy over Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The queue has split into two hostile factions, with the broadcasting technology wizards from a group called counting down.com taking pride of place on the star-spangled pavement of Hollywood Boulevard, and the ordinary fans camped out with their tents and gas stoves in a side-street.

The fans are growing increasingly worried that the film-makers and owners of the Mann's Theater chain will fail to respect the queue they have formed when tickets for the opening night go on sale next week.

The official Star Wars website says it "cannot guarantee" that people who have queued since 7 April will be allowed in first - prompting fears of an unholy scrum and, very possibly, an explosion of anger and violence.

Countingdom.com claims on its Internet site to be delivering the "ultimate fan experience" to allow everyone to share in the queue by watching it live on the Internet

When countingdown.com took charge, it attempted to limit the numbers of people who could actually sit out on the street, setting up a points system enabling people to queue and get on with their lives at the same time, and arranging both corporate sponsorship and a system of donations to a children's charity.

But Lucasfilm, the makers of The Phantom Menace, and the Mann Theaters have expressed fears that countingdown.com will buy out the entire first night and turn the opening into a neighbourhood party for die-hard Star Wars fans only.

"A corporate body has taken over the heart and emotion of this event," said Anil Rao, a 26-year-old British film-maker who arrived last week and wears a T-shirt picturing Darth Maul, the villain from Phantom Menace. "There's this elitist hierarchy trying to establish itself. Everyone wants to be in charge of the queue." With the countdown to the 19 May opening turning into an extraordinary media event in itself, more and more people are joining the queue not because they are desperate to see the film but because they are desperate to see themselves on television or on the Internet. "They are like rats hunting for a morsel of cheese," said a disgusted Mr Rao.

A foretaste of the frenzy came at midnight on Monday when selected toy shops began selling Phantom Menace merchandise. According to the fans on Hollywood Boulevard, grown men were knocking over young children at one store in Burbank in their rush to get to the head of the throng of 600-odd people. In Sherman Oaks, a display case holding Star Wars toys was brought crashing to the ground.

There is, unfortunately, a precedent for this kind of mayhem. When the last Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, opened in 1983, the queue outside Mann's Chinese was hijacked by a group of 1,000 people wearing Darth Vader masks who cut in and hogged most of the tickets for the first show.

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