Free advice for George Lucas: Watch your back. Using only PCs, Star Wars fans are making movies that look as slick and expensive as yours. Sure, online films about the galaxy far, far away are nothing new, but a recent surge in shorts with megaplex-quality effects has sent the genre into orbit around Endor. ''It's getting difficult to keep up. It seems like these are the thing du jour,'' says Jim Ward, marketing VP for Lucasfilm, which last year started sponsoring ''official'' fan films on shorts showcase AtomFilms (atomfilms.com). The handful of artists get a cut of the site's revenue -- up to $2,500 in a month -- but for most directors, pushing the limits of home-PC graphics is no more than a leisure activity, albeit one that might make them famous. With hype, premiere parties, and potential production deals as enticements, these Star Wars wannabes have spawned a mini-industry. ''It's the new fad,'' says Ayaz Asif, codirector of Park Wars (parkwars.com), which is basically Phantom Menace cast with the South Park kids. The 11-minute spoof went live in April and has been, with the Obi-Wan Kenobi-in-high-school sex romp American Jedi, among the top 10 most viewed on shorts portal IFILM (ifilm.com). ''Everybody's saying 'Hey, let's make a fan film,' '' says Asif.
Also following Lucas' lead is the graphics-loaded Duality (www.crewoftwo.com), a death duel between bad-guy Jedis. The Mac-made graphics -- a holographic emperor, a starship landing on a desolate planet -- have the impressive digital sheen of Episode I, and mastermind/star/karate pro Dave Macomber says he and partner Mark Thomas have ''taken a few calls'' from Hollywood effects houses since it was posted in February. Production values for online shorts improve daily, says IFILM programming director Jesse Jacobs, but Star Wars fare keeps a technical step ahead: Duality ''absolutely blew me away, and a lot of people out there are saying this is the best they've ever come across.''
With at least 400 Wookiee-centric works on the Net, competition is tight for spots on high-traffic sites like fan network TheForce.net. And quality ranges wildly, from simple animated text effects (asciimation.co.nz) to such dead-serious live-action dramas as Rogue (rogue-themovie.com). The 28-minute epic about a defecting Imperial officer was released in May with an L.A. bash. ''The bar has definitely been raised,'' says Rogue's Dave Bundtzen, a commercial director who used several L.A. stage actors in his cast. ''I think Hollywood is really looking at this stuff.'' But how many backyard lightsaber duels does the Web need, asks Jason Wishnow, who's made three Star Wars shorts (wishnow.com/starwars). ''The scariest thing I've ever heard is that as technology improves, maybe we'll see feature-length Star Wars fan films,'' he says, expressing doubt that the novelty can be sustained for a full 120 minutes. ''That makes me cringe.''