When news broke that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would open two days early in Paris, an executive at a French cinema chain had a wild idea. Why not offer impatient Jedis from around the world a chance to see the movie first? “As we are located in the Charles De Gaulle airport area, we are the closest cinema from the U.S. to show the movie,” Yohann Stoll of EuropaCorp Cinemas told me. He called his friends at Air France and an alliance was born. If visitors booked certain flights to Paris arriving on the morning of December 16, shuttle buses would take them directly from the airport to the theater for a special private screening. Naturally, the invite read: “Join the French side!”
Which is how yesterday I found myself on Air France flight 65 bound from Los Angeles to Paris wearing a Darth Vader T-shirt.
When I first heard about Air France’s promotion, I had the same thought you’re probably having right now: Who would fly halfway across the world to see a movie two days early? But Star Wars fever is at an all-time high. The film opens tomorrow on 4,100 screens—a record for December. Box office prognosticators are predicting the film will open north of $200 million dollars, likely crushing the record set by Jurassic World earlier this year. Variety has reported that advance ticket sales surpassed $100 million, and that’s not counting aftermarket sales on Ebay, Craigslist, and Stubhub, where IMAX 3D tickets in New York are going for more than $200 a pop.
Disney, which acquired LucasFilm in 2012 for $4 billion dollars, is leveraging its investment with a seemingly endless parade of cross-promotional opportunities. There's been an explosion of Star Wars-themed travel. Coffee-Mate released five Star Wars flavors, including C-3PO Hazelnut, Chewbacca Spiced Latte, and R2-D2 French Vanilla. CoverGirl is encouraging women to “Discover your dark side with our Star Wars Limited Edition Super Sizer Mascara!” I bought my Darth Vader T at Uniqlo, but only because the J. Crew limited edition “Chewie, We’re Home” T-shirts were sold out online.
Four city blocks were closed down for the Los Angeles premiere earlier this week. Storm troopers patrolled the party. The actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt showed up dressed as Yoda. Non-celebrity fans started lining up outside TCL Chinese Theater eleven days ago, which is remarkable for many reasons, but especially this one: In an age where you can choose your seat online in advance, why sleep out?
Well, maybe because it’s fun. And maybe taking a red-eye across the ocean is the new sleeping out. And not to get too morbid, but barely a month after the Paris terror attacks, everyone could use a little fun, Paris especially. As my flight landed, I thought back on something Stoll told me about his first phone call with Air France to discuss his idea. “They loved it,” he said, adding with a laugh: “Maybe they are as crazy as us?”
A woman from Air France met me at the gate and ushered me quickly through Charles de Gaulle. We cleared customs in less than 12 parsecs. (That’s a Star Wars joke.) “We don’t want you to miss the movie,” she exclaimed.
Stroll had joked with me, “There will be surprises. Perhaps you will take a special ship or a special bus to the theater. Maybe Han Solo will be driving.”
Han Solo was not driving and the special car was just a black minivan with tinted windows. But when we arrived at a private waiting lounge at Aeroville—a shopping mall about a five-minute drive from CDG—there were cardboard cutouts of Storm Troopers. Because this is Paris, there were also flutes of champagne waiting on the bar alongside pink French macarons. Bleary-eyed visitors from as far as Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Brazil, and Colombia milled about. A girl in a chic Darth Vader sweater played light saber games with chopsticks. A rep for Air France confirmed 63 people took them up on the offer, though it should be noted that some of these people were already planning to come to Paris.
One was Jun Feng, who lives in the Bay Area with her French boyfriend. They were traveling to Paris see his family for the holidays. “At the last minute we found out about this Star Wars premiere,” Jun told me. “This makes our trip much better. It’s an awesome start.” While she can’t name a favorite Star Wars movie, she’s pretty sure she saw “the fifth one, Phantom Menace.” (This was not the fifth film in the series, though it was certainly the worst.)
Two handsome young French men who work in tech in the Bay Area had booked tickets to come home for the holidays. The Star Wars promotion was just a happy surprise. One of them, Julien, wouldn’t give me his last name and was cagey about where he worked before admitting he worked at Apple (which explained his being cagey). When his co-workers heard about his plans to see Star Wars early, he said, “They were pissed!”
These are not the droids I was looking for. As if on cue, Tim Mersch entered. He’s 44 and lives in Las Vegas, where he does multimedia work for MGM Resorts. He’s not tall but he has a Storm Trooper-white smile and hair that’s graying at the temples. This trip was actually a gift, he told me. “A good friend of mine said to me, Could you take off work on these days in December?” he explained. “I said, ‘I don’t think so, That time is busy.’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to take off.’” Tim rebuffed the offer so many times his friend Trey (standing beside him now) had to explain that he wanted to take him to Paris to see Star Wars two days early. “I said, I’m taking off whether they approve it or not!”
I wanted to gauge how diehard a fan he was, so I asked: “Who shot first?” He smiled big, understanding my reference to a major controversy in the Star Wars universe. In the first Star Wars film Han Solo has a confrontation with a bounty hunter named Greedo. In the original theatrical release, Han Solo shoots Greedo dead. But years later, creator George Lucas felt the scene made Han Solo look like a cold-blooded killer, so a few frames were inserted to imply Greedo shot first. Tim didn’t hesitate. “I always go with the original. The real fans know who shot first.”
Similarly, Lois and David Tom—two sixty-something cats from the Bay Area—wouldn’t have come if not for this unlikely promotion. Lois (named for Lois Lane!) is dressed for the occasion, wearing a C-3P0/R2-D2 T-shirt that says BESTIES. “He texts me and he says, ‘If you’d let me, I’d like to take you to Paris,’” Lois told me.
This is the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard, I said.
She laughed. “Yes, but the thing is, He wants to see Star Wars real bad first.”
David shrugged his shoulders but didn’t deny what his wife had said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. How many times in your life can you say you flew 6000 miles to see a movie?”
I was about to walk away thinking, I’m a fan but look at these freaks, when Lois reminded me what I’d been too jet-lagged (or too jaded) to see. Which is that this story isn’t about bragging rights at ComicCon. It’s about heart.
“We’ve been seeing Stars Wars together since the beginning. The first one came out in ’77. We got married in ’76.”
“In those days,” David said, “you had to wait in a long line. I would cut out of work to go!”
This EuropaCorp-Air France thing? Join the French side? It’s a total PR stunt. But it’s a stunt that taps into the unshakable feeling so many of us felt the first time we saw Star Wars. This new movie? Star Wars: The Force Awakens? It’s a nostalgia play about feeling young again. Or, put another way, It’s a $200 million dick flick that give fathers and sons a chance to talk again, and to remember that first time those words scrawled across the screen. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
And it’s universal. As Alexandre Theodo, an architecture student who had traveled from Brazil, told me: “I watched the first trilogy when I was a kid. My father showed it to me. As a kid, to see those spaceships and light sabers and the Force? It was magical. I would keep trying to move things with my mind and use my Jedi powers.”
I asked Tim from Las Vegas about what first drew him to Star Wars. “I remember watching TV. I was six years old and there was a Star Wars movie promo. Something captured me. The fantasy element, I think. There were these weird characters and robots and aliens, and it was this super space adventure. I remember telling my dad, I have to see this movie. When we finally went to he movie theater, I remember the line going around the block two or three times. That was a bigger-than-life experience for me. It was something unique.”
He sounded a little like George Lucas, whose dad owned an office-supply business in Modesto, California, that he hoped his son would take over. But George wanted to make movies and race cars. We create our own realities. George would surely understand that getting on a plane for 11 hours to see a movie is probably about more than just the movie.
When the last of the flights arrived, four Storm Troopers led us out of the VIP waiting area and down into the mall food court as, yes, “The Imperial March” music—a.k.a. Darth Vader’s theme—played. It was the corniest thing. And also the best.
I walked with Cory Basil, a 38-year-old artist from Nashville, Tennessee. A handful of foreign journalists crowded around him and it was obvious why: Homeboy looked like an American flag. He was wearing a perfectly worn-in leather jacket with a shearling collar and a good ol’ boy smile. “I was born in ’77,” he told me, “the year the movie came out. We didn’t have a VCR. We had to catch something on TV. But a couple of friends of mine had the VHS tapes and they had all the collectible toys and everything. One of my first memories was of hanging out with a friend after school. He had this mammoth Star Wars figurine collection and we were playing like boys and throwing characters against the wall.”
He was planning to come to Paris for a couple of months to work on his art. “I’m a painter, illustrator and author. One of my biggest dreams has been to stay in the city and create and see how the city moves me. I was figuring out when I was going to come and I was checking prices. When I got that e-mail from Air France about Star Wars, I thought, That’s it! I gotta do that.”
Did he think about canceling his trip after the terrorist attacks? Not for a minute, he said. “You could get hit crossing the street for a cup of coffee.”
Light Side. Dark Side. Not to get too heavy, but maybe we need an escape like Star Wars right now. Maybe the movie came at exactly the right time. On our way into theater, Cory turned to me and said, “I’m geeking out of my mind!” So was I.
We settled in for the movie. For those who are interested, Star Wars: The Force Awakens picks up 30 years after Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker has gone missing. The evil Galactic Empire has been reborn as the First Order. A desert scrounger named Rey was abandoned at age 5 and still hopes her family is coming back for her.
Also, Han Solo is back. Harrison Ford seems like he’s having the most fun of anyone on screen.
More importantly, for two hours I forgot I’d been afraid to tell my family I was traveling to Paris so soon after the attacks. I forgot that a valet parking attendant was shot down the block from my house in Los Angeles in a robbery gone wrong. I forgot about San Bernadino and campaign season and a million other unfortunate events we’ve all been thinking about lately. Also, that new robot, the BB-8, is one damn cute droid.