Interview: John E. Hudgens on Star Wars Fan Films

"Crazy Watto," the fan film that made John E. Hudgens famous  among Star Wars fans.
“Crazy Watto,” the fan film that made John E. Hudgens famous among Star Wars fans.

John E. Hudgens is the foremost historian of one of the strangest sub-genres of modern cinema: the fan film. He began his career in entertainment making music videos for Babylon 5, but found greater success when he created three of the most successful Star Wars fan films ever made: “Crazy Watto” (which won the Lucasfilm Official Fan Film Awards in 2000 and was shown at Cannes), “Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline,” and “Jedi Hunter” (which were runner-up and winner of the Luscafilm fan audience awards in 2002 and 2003 respectively.) As a documentarian, he directed Backyard Blockbusters, a history of fan films that played at the Other Worlds Austin Film Festival. I talked to him just before Star Wars Day, May the Fourth, in 2016, about the history of fan films, and what the recent fight over who owns the rights to Star Trek mean for the genre (parts of this interview previously appeared at

Richard Whittaker: As a maker of fan films, hat’s the appeal for you of playing on someone else’s sandbox?

John E. Hudgens: The great thing about fan films is that there’s a short hand. You don’t have to explain the set-up of Star wars. If you’re going to tell your own original story, you have to set up everything, but if you don’t need to explain Darth Vader, you don’t have to explain lightsabers, it’s all already there. It’s all already there, people get it, and that’s one less thing you have to do.

Of course, I say that talking more about parodies, which is more what I’ve done. I’ve not done anything like Star Trek: New Voyages. But a lot of people want to play in that universe, and the only they can get certain things, or see certain things done, is to do it themselves. So “Jedi Hunter” was such a great idea, but the only way to see it was to go make it. Luckily, we were able to pull that off.

RW: There’s always that contradiction, that the appeal for a lot of people with doing a short is that they’re cheap and easy, but doing a sci-fi fan film, the costumes aren’t cheap, the props aren’t cheap.

JEH: But there are so many people out there in fandom who have these things and made them themselves. “Crazy Watto” was just our toys, and that was a complete accident. We weren’t planning on making a fan film, it was just us goofing us. I don’t know if you saw the behind-the-scenes piece, but we were going to do this massive stop-motion battle, but that was too much work. When we got the idea for “Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline” I’d been doing the convention for years because of Babylon 5, so I was very familiar with a lot of people in the convention culture, so I knew there were a lot of people with costumes, so it was a matter of who was available and who would do it. That’s the way it is with a lot of this films, especially now you have the 501st and the Rebel Legion and various Star Trek groups. There are people out there who have the props and will jump at the chance to use them. For the most part, people aren’t in it for the money, they’re just in it for the fun. That’s the way you should do it, because there have been very few fan films that have gotten dinged for money. People get that they can play with this stuff, but they can’t make money off of it.

Well you hope they get that. That’s part of the problem with Star Trek: Axanar. They weren’t trying to make money off of it, but there was a lot of money involved.
I don’t know if you’ve kept up with that, but there’s been some fallout from that already. The guys that did Star Trek: Horizon were getting ready to launch the Kickstarter this weekend for their follow-up. They didn’t get a C&D, they didn’t get a lawsuit, but they got a call from Paramount saying “Don’t.” So they shut down their follow-up.

I’m wondering, part of that is Paramount trying to tread a little lighter. Granted, they’re mostly in the right with what they’re doing with Axanar, but they’re going about it the wrong way, and they’re getting a lot of bad press.

RW: Star Wars has seemed to have a different relationship with fan films than a lot of other properties. Some tolerate them, but Lucasfilm has actively embraced them, even running the competitions.

JEH: It’s not as big as it was in the last decade, but they’re still doing the Star Wars fan film awards. It’s much smaller than it used to be, it’s not as huge, and the films are shorter – I think there’s a five minute limit. And there’s not as much money as there was: I don’t think the winners get any profit sharing, the way we did with ours. I actually made a profit on all four of my fan films.

RW: Isn’t that unprecedented?

JEH: It was, but I was in a unique position. “Crazy Watto” and “Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline,” we’re not talking huge amounts of money, but I made back what I spent. Also, with the two big ones I had, they won the audience choice in their years, so they got a lot more viewers. The way Atom Films structured it was that there a pool of revenue for each year, and you got a percentage of that depending on how many views you got, and the winners and the more popular ones got a bigger chunk of change. So even though I think “Jedi Hunter” is a better film and got more views, “Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline” made more money because it came out in a year when there was a film.

They’re not doing it anymore, but part of that was because they were doing it with Atom Films, and Atom Films had structured all these deals, and taking them to Cannes and trying to distribute them as short films, and they had Lucasfilm had them as a partner, and I don’t think anyone has done that since. There’s been some stuff, like Battlestar Galactica has done some stuff, but that was basically remixing their footage. I know Red Dwarf did something, but that went on the DVD as extras and I’m not sure there was any compensation. Paramount has always just been, ‘we’re going to look this way, and you guys, don’t screw us.

Even Lucasfilm wasn’t always on board, but they came around really quickly. I think it was back in ’98, the Australian short “Dark Redemption” got a C&D before somebody at Lucasfilm went to the lawyers and said, dude, rope it in. I know (Star Wars archivist) Steve Sansweet has talked about it, that it was one of those things where it was a misunderstanding where the lawyers moved on something and the company went “whoa!”

RW: So what is it that makes a good versus a bad fan film?

JEH: I don’t know that there is … well, I’ve seen bad ones that you wouldn’t believe. I also used to help TheForce.Net screen fan films. From 2003 to 2007, after I made my films, I was one of the gate keepers. The thing is, people with forgive a lot of things if they’re entertained. There’s this fantastic short called “The $10 Fan Film.” It looks like crap, but it’s funny. I’ve seen films where people have put their heart and soul into it, and they look gorgeous, but they’re unwatchable, because they’re not having fun. I use the example of myself: when the first Star Wars contest came along, we were trying to win. We made it look really flashy, I got my friends to help out, we tried to stack the deck, and it’s funny, but it’s not funny. We were doing it for the wrong reason.

When “Jedi Hunter” came along, we did it, whether there was a contest or not. We had the idea waiting at dinner for Peter Mayhew, and we had people around us laughing at the ideas that we were throwing around. So we made that because we just had to see it, and we didn’t care if there was going to be a contest. We just wanted to please ourselves, and of course that’s the one that won all the awards. You can feel the difference. There’s a passion. We weren’t just trying to make something funny. We were having fun making something funny, and I think there are too many people being too serious.

Not to say you can’t have a serious fan film, because some of the Star Trek films are just phenomenal. But for me that’s one of the differences between Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek Continues, is that Star Trek: New Voyages is a passion project, while Star Trek Continues is (producer/director) Vic Mignogna trying to be Star Trek.

RW: Are you seeing many post-The Force Awakens fan films, or are people still playing around more in the prequel and original trilogies?

JEH: Well, I’ve been very busy since the movie came out with work, but there have been a couple of fan films I’ve seen come out. There was a really elaborate one called “Rebel Scum”, and then there was a Darth Maul one that everyone was raving over. But like I said, the submission process is open for the official fan film award. They did it last year, but it didn’t get the same publicity as it did 10 years ago.

It comes in waves. Probably what you’ll see is that The Force Awakens has inspired a lot of people, and it just takes a bit of time to get things going. They just need something to spur their imagination, and spur them into action. If The Force Awakens did one thing, it really got people excited about Star Wars again. And granted, it was a fun movie too. And I’m not a prequel basher. They’re not horrid movies. They’re not great movies, but if they were the only Star Wars movies, people would be looking back at them the way we look back at the originals. We were spoiled in the ‘80s.

RW: It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, because for so many young kids, their Star Wars is The Clone Wars and Rebels.

JEH: And a lot of it is the tools, because the tools get easier and easier every year. When I started, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I had these grand ambitions of what would have been an adaptation of Han Solo at Star’s End, the Brian Daley books. Mapped it out, tried to build models, but of course it never happened, because I was 13.

RW: And now you look at something like “Rebel Scum” and the production values are incredible.

JEH: Well, that’s made by adults with apparently lots of cash to spare. There are lot of people doing like what Sandy Collora (“Batman: Dead End”) did. They’re using these as calling cards, proof of concept, “This is what I can do with nothing. Give me a budget and I’ll knock your socks off.” I didn’t really treat this like that myself, because I already had a full time job in television and liked where I was. I certainly did the best I could, and pulled out all the stops for what we could pull off.

But with us, we just wanted to have fun. That’s why it took so long from “Jedi Hunter” to “Sith Apprentice.” We weren’t going to do another one just to do one. We had to have an idea that was worth doing, that could stand next to the other one and not be a knock-off. That’s why we haven’t done another one. I won’t say never, but I don’t know if we would do another, because none of us have had “the idea” that demands to be made.

The best we ever had, and it’s past its prime now, we were considering doing “The Vader Report”, which was Darth Vader as Stephen Colbert. Oh, we came so close. I even built 3D sets for it. We had a couple of gags, but we never had a story.

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