It's midnight, midweek at the multiplex. Bloated with malt balls and Milk Duds, they have queued stoically even amiably for hours, in some cases for days.
As many while away the hours giggling behind masks of Jar-Jar Binks, Jabba the Hutt, and Yoda, the overwhelming majority of their friends are home asleep, readying for real jobs or school in the morning. Some have even come prepared with tents, cots, sleeping bags, backpacks, sunblock, parasols, battery-fans, and personal masseuses. The conclusion: more Americans, more often, gotta be there opening day.
With 'round-the-block lines at this week's opening of "Attack of the Clones" as with "Spider-man" and "Harry Potter" in recent months a key question is gaining merit from sea to shining sea: "What, in the love of Pete, are these people doing?".
Whether motivated by the dark side of the force (competition, pride) or the light (punctuality, promptness) or just suckered by advertising hype the movie-going norm is shifting as Americans clamor to share in the collective experience of a movie event.
"It's a huge shared ritual," says Tim Burke, a culture historian, at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pa. "It means on Monday morning, around the watercooler, there's a notion of a shared experience."
Here at the Grauman Chinese in the heart of Hollywood, close to 1,000 people are waiting for the midnight debut of "Clones."
"Seeing a great movie with a thousand other people who really love it is something that you can't get in a normal cinema experience," says Jason Barnes, sitting in line here with his buddy, B.J. Horn. The duo went to college together at nearby Cal Tech, saw a "Star Wars" film on graduation day three years ago, and have met here today to repeat the experience.
For some, forgoing a good night's sleep to be a part of the stampede to see the film is driven by more competitive reasons.
"I had to see this movie before my older sister," says 12-year-old Amanda Smith, standing in line for the 12:01 midnight show of "Star Wars" in Hollywood. "I just had to beat her to it."
Clinton Burke, another patient patron, adds, "I wanted to earn points with my kids. It's cool for them to be ahead of their schoolmates."
The phenomenon of crowds at blockbusters is a logical extension of both the information and competition culture," says Carol Donelan, a professor of media studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
"We like our movies and we want our regular fix. But this new push to get there first has to do with the perceived power that accrues to us when we have knowledge that others don't."
If true, that Darth-Vader-like search for power will be costly. Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that 2.6 million full-time workers earning an average $122.80 a day will decide to take an unscheduled day off work to see the new "Star Wars." That's $319 million worth of playing hooky.
But movie studios are not complaining.
Driven by the need to get return on their investments for increasingly expensive movies, studios are increasingly front-loading their advertising for opening weekend, rather than spreading it out for the long runs of yesteryear.
"Movie studios and their marketing machines are increasingly geared to getting their biggest box office opening weekend because the competition is so tough, they might not make it to the next weekend," says Paul Dergarabedian, movie analyst for Exhibitor Relations, an industry box office analysis firm.
As a result, more and more films which do great at the box office in a three- or four-day opening, are falling off drastically in subsequent weekends. That happens because they're often socked by poor word-of-mouth reviews or by the heavy promotion of the next weekend's big release.
But beyond the savvy advertising that often helps propel the hype of a movie event, many industry observers are noting a phenomenon weirder than the assortment of aliens on display in a Star Wars cantina. In some small sense, Americans simply want to be there because they want to be there.
"This is America around the campfire, gathering as the tribe we've ceased to be, defining ourselves as a culture by standing in line the way we used to sit around the dinner table but no longer do," says Kathy Giuffre, who teaches the sociology of culture at Colorado College. "Maybe it's tragic, but increasingly blockbuster movie lines are where this is happening."
That analysis seems to jibe with interviews in long lines outside the Grauman Theater here.
"It's the actual experience of being here, rubbing shoulders with other fans who love these films as much as I do and want to talk about them," says Markus Watson, from Glendora, Calif.
Why not take it easy and see these movies on the second day or third day?
"The second day brings in the second- rate fans. I want to hang out with the winners," says Watson.
Likewise for Steven Mason, a 16-year-old student from Burbank.
"It's being here with the crowds that draws me the environment," he says. "I wanna have the memory of being with all the hard-core fans and of just being here."
Hand in glove with these observations comes another. It is related both to the increased isolation of home cable, satellite, and pay-per-view viewing and to the sheer overbuilding of cineplexes in recent years. That is the search for a shared social experience in a world where traditional notions of tribe and community are breaking down.
In Newton, Mass., Xavier Reagan, admits he's lining up because of the hype surrounding the event.
"It's not even about the movie at his point," he says. "It's everything about the movie, just the whole excitement of it all."
For some, the anticipation of seeing the new film has been building ever since the last "Star Wars" movie, "The Phantom Menace" ended its first screening, about 2:30 a.m., May 19, 1999.
Shehzad Sheikh, dressed up as a Jedi Knight and wielding a plastic light saber in the lobby here, has seen every one of the movies 200 times. During his childhood, his Han Solo doll slept with him on his pillow at night. "That guy was my Barbie doll," he says. "I'm obsessed with ["Star Wars"]. How can you not be?"