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Featuring the movie launch in Lebanon
With Christmas only a few days in the past and leftovers still in the fridge, Star Wars action figures have moved from grocery store toy isles into countless Lebanese homes. They’ve prooven that the franchise still captivates new generations of fans even 38 years since its initial début. Following this month’s release of Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, fandom among all age groups has reached a new high in the country. Star Wars related events have popped up throughout the capital belying a level of national enthusiasm that has surprised die-hard fans and movie industry executives alike.
Nowhere was that enthusiasm more palpable than at a Star Wars themed art exhibition in Saifi Village. Attendants shuffled about the gallery floor, mingling over party favors and admiring various displays to the tune of the Imperial March. Several local artists were commissioned to contribute pieces for the event resulting in a multidisciplinary assortment of talents from architecture to neon light craftsmanship. Atop pedestals throughout the room sat replicas of light sabers and storm trooper helmets, cut from the same molds as the original movie props themselves.
When asked why Geek Express, which hosted the exhibition, decided on the Star Wars theme, manager Samer Maroun narrowed his eyes. “Why Star Wars? Why not?! It is pop culture. It is what really kind of pushed film. It’s what started all the kind of cult culture as it really boosted everything. It’s a very universal theme, the whole Star Wars fighting against the emperor and all that and in the Middle East I think we can relate to it the most.”
In addition to the art exhibition and other Star Wars related parties, The Comic Stash, a collectibles vendor, also expressed their zeal by organizing a Star Wars comic book sale. But of all of the forms of Star Wars celebration private screenings were perhaps the most numerous. As the owner of Iron Heyoka, a media production company, Daniel Habib co-organized the screening of episodes four and five of the original trilogy. For each film he reported that about 50 people turned out to drink beer, eat popcorn and enjoy the saga in the company of friends.
Habib was one of a handful of media personalities that were invited to a special press screening of The Force Awakens before the film’s theatrical release. Protecting the movie’s plot was taken so seriously that confidentiality wavers required signature upon entrance. “I loved it!” Habib exclaimed when describing the new movie. “It’s not the transcendent experience that some people expected it to be but I definitely loved it I definitely think it was very well made. It was a very good step forward.”
Besides the press screening however Lebanon did not have an Avant premiere in which theaters host a pre-showing at higher ticket prices. One wealthy Lebanese businessman took it upon himself to rent out an entire Vox theater for a midnight début before the theatrical release on December 17. Seats were offered to the public free of charge, that is, if they met the requisite minimum of Star Wars knowledge. In order to secure their admission moviegoers were required pass an online trivia quiz. Questions included “What is the name of Han Solo’s ship?” and “Which Jedi master orders the clones in episode two?”
A special invitation list was sent out to a few prominent bloggers and celebrities as well. Friends invited friends until many of the guests were unsure who had organized the event in the first place. People buzzed with speculation just before the doors opened at midnight. The brains behind the screening turned out to be former Minister of Telecommunications, Nicolas Sehanoui. As a member of parliament he had delivered two university speeches that he concluded with the phrase “may the force be with you.” For the premiere, planned nearly a month and a half in advance, Sehanoui appeared cloaked in Jedi robes with an illuminated light saber in hand.
Sehanoui estimates that nearly 300 fans had passed his quiz and turned out to be the first to see the new Star Wars film that Wednesday night. “I was surprised at the first screening to see how many fans there is, and I think there are many more. I think this is 10% probably of the fan base, which is much more than what I would have anticipated. But it probably is not as big as you would hope for,” explained Sehanoui.
He may have been pleasantly surprised to learn that at the same time another group of Star Wars buffs had also rented out a private theater at the Cinema City in Downtown. Wael, who declined to provide his last name, had initially come up with the idea. “We’re all big Star Wars fans. I think we’ve been waiting for this movie for the past year!” he says standing out of his chair, unable to contain his excitement. “We grew up with Star Wars so I think in my age bracket its [popularity is] pretty high. One of the few movies you actually got to see in the wartime. Movies wasn’t a big thing but Star Wars was a big thing here.”
Since the civil war when the original trilogy was first projected Star Wars has developed a loyal following in Lebanon. At the same time, the growing popularity of the Star Wars franchise in Lebanon may have been obscured by failure of the prequel trilogy in the early 2000’s. Empire Theaters, the largest theater chain in Lebanon, was stunned by the turnout for The Force Awakens.
Bassam Eid, the Theatrical Coordinator for Empire Theaters, said, “This is the first movie that did well here, the other one didn’t do anything. But this one due to the new technology social media and the buzz made for this movie it’s doing well. Its number one here, in Lebanon it’s the first time Star Wars has become number one. There is a local movie Al Sayida Al Thaniya, it should be the number one but Star Wars beat it.” According to Empire’s cumulative admission charts Star Wars Episode Seven was the most popular movie in Lebanon for the week after its release.
Although Eid attributes the phenomenon to social media hype Habib suggested that the surge in Star Wars fanfare is actually indicative of an emerging movement of pop culture enthusiasts in Lebanon. “Our geek community is very young, even Dubai and the whole region. I think it’s getting built right now. In these past four years or three years it’s becoming concrete.”
With a new trilogy in development Sehanoui remains hopeful that Star Wars will become more and more popular in Lebanon over time. “I think the fandom will grow because there’s the new episode in two years and the third one and the ninth one in five years maybe and it’s having a very nice success.”