I've long been fascinated by fan films, largely -- though not exclusively -- a 21st-century phenomenon made possible by digital cameras and computerized special effects.
Before the democratization of filmmaking, the only outlet for homages of "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" or comic-book properties was underground fan fiction. Well, that, or going to an awful lot of trouble to create a shot-for-shot remake as three teens did in 1977. (Even now, it's still more impressive than anything in "Be Kind, Rewind.")
When I first wrote about Star Wars fan films in 2000, many of them were nearly as visually sophisticated as "The Phantom Menace" -- and far more entertaining. For starters, take a look at "Troops" or "Dark Redemption" or "Pink 5," for example.
Since then, numerous properties -- ranging from "Harry Potter" to "Buffy" to "Doctor Who" -- have launched fan films. If anything, these films arguably bolster fandom and fidelity to each franchise. (Sadly, EON, the owners of the James Bond copyright have been shortsighted in shutting down 007 fan films.)
Some of the most ambitious amateur homages in recent years have come from Trekkies because, prior to the J.J. Abrams film, production had ceased on new feature films and TV series. Some Trek fans went as far as creating their own exact replica of the original USS Enterprise bridge in order to create an online series that picked up where Gene Roddenberry's 1960 original series left off. Even more ambitious: "Of Gods and Men," an unofficial Star Trek indie feature I wrote about, hired a number of Star Trek alumni, including Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and Walter Koenig (Chekov).
In short, I thought I had pretty much seen it all when it came to fan films. Turns out, I was wrong. A group of "Lord of the Rings" fans have combed through J.R.R. Tolkien's extensive footnotes to create a prequel of sorts to "Lord of the Rings." This just-released trailer (below) showcases impressive production values -- check out the Orc makeup! -- and an actor who, if you don't look too closely, bears an uncanny resemblance to Viggo Mortensen. (More about the film, which hits the Web on May 3, here.) I imagine Peter Jackson will get a kick out of this.