The first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered the day after Thanksgiving in 2014 and has since piled up over 21 million views. Subsequent trailers, from April and October, each racked up over 72 million views.
And yet neither of these trailers made as much of a dent in the web as the trailers for The Phantom Menace did before its premiere. By breaking download records and warping the servers of many late 90s entertainment websites, it became one of, if not the first, viral videos, helping to create the trailer-obsessed version of online fandom we have today.
The first Phantom Menace trailer was an early internet success story and it inspired the sort of breathless hyperbole we've come to expect from the internet (and Star Wars fans) when it premiered in November 1998, via the New York Times:
''The trailer felt like five seconds,'' said Harry Knowles, who founded the Ain't-It-Cool-News Web site (www.aint-it-cool-news.com), which is populated by movie fans obsessed with ''Star Wars.'' Over the Internet, Mr. Knowles seemed stricken with guilt about his early qualms about the new ''Star Wars.''
''I hate myself for every doubt I had,'' he said. ''What on earth was I ever thinking? Analyzing every nugget, every whisper. Worrying about reshoots and deadlines. George seems to be 100 percent on his game.''
Other fans, on the Internet, talked about weeping and shaking while watching the trailer. On Mr. Knowles's Web site, a fan named David Chung summed up his feelings: ''What can I say! George Lucas must be a superior form of life!''
After premiering in theaters, the trailer was posted on the StarWars.com and downloaded about 10 million times in Real Video, QuickTime, and AVI formats, essentially kickstarting the phenomenon of discussing movie trailers on the web.
Similar to The Force Awakens, the anticipation for Episode I was palpable, and a trailer released two months before its May 1999 premiere was an even bigger coup for the internet.
Steve Jobs somehow convinced LucasFilm to release the second trailer in March 1999 exclusively on QuickTime, according to Jonathan Bowen's "Anticipation: The Real Life Story Of Star Wars: Episode I", and LucasFilm engineers went so far as to create a sound mix especially aimed at online consumers. The gambit worked and 600,000 people downloaded QuickTime that day in order to watch the 2 minute, 30 second trailer. Remember this is 1998, when downloading such a large file would take a while. Still, after 24 hours, the trailer had been officially downloaded over a million times, not counting versions disseminated on illegal file-sharing services.
After three weeks, the number was over 6 million, leading Steve Jobs to declare it "the biggest Internet download event in history." Downloads of The Phantom Menace trailer passed those of the Starr Report, which had set the web on fire the previous autumn. At the time, Empire, a British film magazine, quipped on its website "we ain't joking when we say the site's busy and if you can get your beady eyes on it this week, you'll be lucky." Headline: Net Force Clogged.
Akamai was roundly seen as the reason for the success of the trailer. Their technology allowed traffic to be rerouted, so sites hosting the trailer didn't collapse. Some sites, however, weren't so lucky, crumbling under the weight of demand for The Phantom Menace.
Movie trailer culture on the internet: another thing you can credit to—or blame on—Star Wars.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org