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‘Star Wars’ fans wield force against Weinstein

Faced with a grassroots boycott and protests, indie studio Weinstein Co. said that it now plans to release two versions of its “Star Wars”-inspired comedy “Fanboys.”
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

The geeks have been heard.

Faced with a grassroots boycott of its films, bicoastal protests at screenings of its Friday opener “Superhero Movie” and a campaign calling its co-chairman “Darth Weinstein,” indie studio Weinstein Co. said Monday that it now plans to release two versions of its “Star Wars”-inspired comedy “Fanboys.”

Weinstein said it will release the two versions on DVD, and a studio source later said that is exploring two theatrical versions.

“Fanboys,” about four diehard “Star Wars” fans who break into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in order to see “The Phantom Menace” on the eve of its release, wrapped production two years ago and has been stuck in limbo as a tug-of-war between Harvey Weinstein and the filmmakers waged over competing versions of the movie.

The latest announcement did nothing to satisfy the filmmakers, who accuse the company of only putting out the announcement in order to sidestep a meltdown at this weekend’s box office.

“This is more about avoiding picket lines at ‘Superhero’ than it was about making a decision about the release of our movie,” said Kevin Mann, one of the producers.

Mann — along with producer Matthew Perniciaro, director Kyle Newman and writer Ernie Cline, who originated the story — worked on “Fanboys” in 2003 with Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street production company coming on board in 2005. The cast, including then up-and-comers Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell, Seth Rogen and Dan Fogler, all signed up for a script that one year made the Blacklist, the annual industry ranking of the top scripts in town. Footage began making the rounds at “Star Wars” festivals, while 40 minutes of “Fanboys”’ rough cut was screened at Star Wars Celebration and Comic-Con, where it was enthusiastically received by a standing-room-only crowd last year.

The Weinstein Co. picked up the project in late 2005, and following production slated “Fanboys” for release Aug. 17, 2007. That got pushed back to a January 18 release. Then it went off the grid altogether.

Insiders said the root of the problem was Weinstein’s issue with the underlying story in “Fanboys.” The cross-country adventure is put in motion because one of the characters is facing cancer. Late last year, the company decided it would do reshoots, hiring Judd Apatow’s producing partner Shauna Robertson to oversee a $2 million reshoot of four scenes done by director Steve Brill (“Drillbit Taylor”). That, combined with re-editing, created a version that excised the cancer subplot.

“Harvey feels it’s hard to market, especially with this cast,” an insider said. “He wants to market to a more teen audience. The filmmakers wanted a dramedy along the vein of ‘Stand by Me.”’

The Weinstein Co. this year began testing both versions. Unprompted by the filmmakers, “Star Wars” fans began uniting to oppose the noncancer version, led by the 501st, a “Star Wars” fan group named after a fictional battalion. The group created a Web site that provided updates on developments while also lampooning Harvey Weinstein by Photoshopping him in Darth Vader drag.

The test screenings yielded a minuscule win for the noncancer version — one insider said the difference was only two test points — but that only emboldened the geeks. And some of the producers remained unmoved.

“The original reason we wanted to get involved with this script was because it was a comedy with heart,” Mann said. “In my opinion, when the cancer was taken out, the heart went with it.”

The fans’ ire was raised even more when they discovered that Brill had joined a chat session under the screen name “GL,” which fans interpreted to be George Lucas. The online discussion turned nasty with threats from both sides.

The new announcement still leaves the movie up in the air. It still has no release date, only a promise that both versions will be available on DVD. Late Monday, a Weinstein source said, “We’re making a very strong attempt to make both films available theatrically as well.”

The 501st was unimpressed with the Weinstein Co.’s move.

“This is clearly a vain attempt by the Weinstein Co. to avert ‘Star Wars’ fans’ impending boycott of all of their films,” the group said. “It’s not going to work, Darth Weinstein. There was never any doubt that you would release both versions of the movie on DVD, probably months apart, so as to leech as much money from ‘Star Wars’ fans as possible. Our boycott will continue until the Weinstein Co. announces that they are returning control of ‘Fanboys’ to the ‘Star Wars’ fans who made it, releasing the original version in theaters and doing away with their anti-fan version of the film altogether.”

The company Monday acknowledged that it had received more than 300,000 e-mails, which factored in its decision.

“While the later version tested very well with audiences, the grassroots support we have received for the first version simply cannot be ignored,” a Weinstein spokesman said.

The filmmakers had a more measured response than the fans, hoping to be given a chance to work the film some more.

“If they want to excise the cancer or reshoot again, I’ll cooperate,” Trigger Street producer Dana Brunetti said. “One tested better than the other, so I see both sides to it.

“We’re too close to the movie to be objective, but we know which we consider better,” he added with a laugh. “I’ve always been content with the (original cut of) the movie.”

Harvey Weinstein has a history of tangling with filmmakers over their films’ edits, earning him the moniker “Harvey Scissorhands” in some circles, but he seems to have met his match with a legion of “Star Wars” fans.

The possibility of a theatrical release was encouraging to both Newman and Brunetti.

“It will be interesting to see what version comes out theatrically, if it does at all,” Brunetti said. “We’re hoping to meet somewhere in the middle between the two.”