The Secret Weapon Behind ‘Superman,’ ‘X-Men’? Die-Hard Fans

Studios increasingly taking note of Lego trailers, online parodies.

SANTA MONICA, California — Virtually every film you’ve ever seen has nothing to do with you. They are watched over by millionaires, constructed on the whims of Southern California test audiences and released by executives in suits whose overriding desire is to minimize risk.

Now a very real cinematic revolution is threatening to kick down Hollywood’s door — and in the eyes of Internet-savvy movie geeks who’ve been participating in the filmmaking process in clever, uncredited ways, it’s about time.

“I was on the bus and somebody ran up to me with an iPod and was like, ‘I’m watching you right now,’ ” laughed Randy Hayes, the 21-year-old college student whose “X-Men” parody has rendered his voice instantly recognizable to the millions who’ve heard him exclaim, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” on YouTube.

That fanbase most definitely includes Marvel Studios, 20th Century Fox and director Brett Ratner, whose “X-Men: The Last Stand” hit theaters three months after the dubbed clip by Hayes and pal Xavier Nazario became an Internet sensation. Now, in-on-the-joke crowds nationwide are going nuts when “real” Juggernaut Vinnie Jones delivers the line that originated in the Web spoof.

Another Web celebrity, Lee Hulme, said, “I’m 35, and I work in an IT department in London. I have a great fondness for Superman, and for Lego. … It drives my girlfriend a bit crazy sometimes, but she understands.” Hulme’s shot-by-shot Lego re-creations of the trailers for “Superman Returns” have similarly brought him to the attention of Hollywood.

“They’re my cast, basically; I can move them in any way I want,” Hulme explained of his small, plastic actors. “And you don’t get any diva attitudes, really,” he laughed. “There’s no, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m going to my trailer.’ “

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Brandon Routh, Hollywood’s Superman, lights up when asked about Hulme’s reverential YouTube clips. “It’s pretty funny,” he said of the sight of himself 3 inches tall. “It’s Superman, and it’s cool to see and it’s fun to see people put a different light to the character. It still works, and it’s still kind of powerful, even for a Lego.”

Fan fiction and crudely made spoof films have been around for decades, and the pioneering Internet days of the late 20th century had fad flicks like “George Lucas in Love” (1999) and the “Cops”-meets-”Star Wars” mash-up “Troops” (1998) earning their directors “legitimate” careers in Hollywood. Never before, however, have filmmakers been so willing to promote a back-and-forth exchange with the passionate fans who pour their time into such projects.

For proof, look no further than the hubbub surrounding “Snakes on a Plane,” a seemingly disposable B movie whose goofy title has inspired a rabid Internet following. Several news outlets reported recently that New Line Cinema had arranged additional shooting, partly because star Samuel L. Jackson was recording expletive-heavy dialogue made up by fans in their Web spoofs. The studio, however, refused to confirm.

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But fast-forward a few weeks, and the film has accrued blockbuster-worthy buzz, scored an August 18 release date and now has an end-credit song titled “Snakes on a Plane (Bring It),” which begins with Jackson shouting, “I have had it with these mother—–n’ snakes on my mother—–n’ plane!”

For fans like Hayes, Nazario, Hulme and the “Snakes on a Plane” army, such dialogue is music to their ears. They shouldn’t, however, be checking their mailboxes for royalty checks.

“I have not been approached by Warner Bros.,” Hulme said, insisting that fears of facing down a corporate legal team trump the desire for acknowledgement. “I hope they don’t approach me, because I just think [making spoofs] is something that they should let us do. I love the character of Superman; I’m not doing this for profit.”

“They’ll leave us alone as long as we’re not making money off of it,” Nazario said of such fan-made efforts. Nevertheless, he is continuing to try to get a sales pitch to Ratner, who has thus far avoided his attempts to connect.

“I do think it would be a great idea if they contacted us, and then we could all make a plan,” he said. “That little video would be like a cool little extra for the ‘X-Men 3′ DVD.”

Sighing, he added, “But I know they won’t contact me for that.”

“While I will neither confirm nor deny the origin of the line, I will say that most of us lucky enough to work on a Marvel film are, first and foremost, fans ourselves,” said Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige, an executive producer of “The Last Stand.” “Seeing how other fans online are expressing their passion and enthusiasm for these characters is always entertaining and, occasionally, inspiring.”

Such carefully worded winks and nods are becoming business as usual for the studios, as they want fans to feel appreciated for their loyalty but are too inexperienced in the legalities of such back-and-forths to officially acknowledge their growing dependency on someone like Nazario, who isn’t exactly on their payroll. Then there’s someone like Hulme, whose influence is less obvious but has nevertheless resulted in the studio unofficially “leaking” his links as part of a truly 21st century marketing campaign.

“Of course, we have to respect the legal rights of DC Comics and Warner Bros., and can’t officially sanction any of these fan-made trailers,” added Chris Lee, a “Superman Returns” executive producer. “But speaking for [director] Bryan [Singer] and the whole creative team at ‘Superman Returns,’ we’re always amazed and delighted by the outrageous creativity shown by the fans for their hero, the Man of Steel.

“You know you’re part of the zeitgeist when your teaser trailer is re-enacted with Legos, and we only hope the audience has as much fun with our film as they are doing making their own,” Lee concluded, adding that he’ll continue watching for more fan-made films — particularly his favorite ones, which “always end with the tag line ‘Please don’t sue me!’ ”

Still, it might be wise for studios to give someone like Hulme a call while constructing a reportedly $200 million-plus flick like “Returns.” “With electricity, hell, I probably spent
maybe about 40 dollars,” reported the Lego auteur when asked about his budget. “I could have possibly done it a bit cheaper, but maybe not as good.”

“The top of my head,” is Hayes’ response when asked where he uncovered the “Juggernaut” line — the kind of tag line that typically earns a Hollywood screenwriter millions. As he remembers it, he sat down with Nazario and an old “X-Men” cartoon show when, “I was watching the opening scene, and I picked up a microphone and said, ‘Yeah, I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!’ And it just went from there.”

So, if you’ve got an idea, a lot of free hours and a decent broadband connection, the time has come for you to throw those stuffed suits, test audiences and millionaires out of their fat-cat positions atop the Hollywood mountain. That is, as long as you’re cool with a veiled acknowledgement and a no-discount ticket to see the movie you helped shape.

“I’ll be definitely booking the day off to go watch it as many times as possible, and if I can’t book the day off, I’ll be calling in sick,” Hulme said of “Superman Returns.” “It’s all quite surreal. Words can’t describe how elated I feel that [my work has] actually been viewed by Warner Bros. and Bryan and Brandon.”

Appropriately enough, when Superman does fly into London in a few weeks, Hulme will be bringing his mini-Routh along to the theater.

“I know it sounds quite crazy,” the Englishman laughed, getting ready to head back to his day job. “But I assure you, I am reasonably sane.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Snakes on a Plane,” “Superman Returns” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

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