- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

This weekend, “The Force Awakens” in the shadow of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

As “Star Wars” fans prepare their costumes for viewing the long-awaited seventh episode of the sci-fi franchise, movie theaters are stepping up security to prevent a repeat of the 2012 massacre during a showing of the finale of the Batman trilogy in Aurora, Colorado.

AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Landmark Theatres are welcoming costumed customers while telling them to keep their face paint and masks at home. That means no Darth Vaders, Darth Mauls, Stormtroopers or Boba Fetts in full regalia.

And no hand blasters, bowcasters or other “items that would make other guests feel uncomfortable or detract from the movie-going experience,” AMC says.

Lightsabers — the Jedi knight’s weapon of choice — are permitted, however.

That would be good news for David Casterline, a 28-year-old photographer who has been camping in front of the Uptown Theater in Northwest Washington since last Friday to be the first in line to see “The Force Awakens,” which opened at midnight Thursday. He owns a lightsaber that his brother gave him during their marathon wait to see “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” even though he’s not planning to view the new movie in costume.

“A lot of us thought [“Episode III”] was the last chance, that that was the last ‘Star Wars,’” Mr. Casterline said of camping out for the 2005 movie as a teenager. “We took our chances to do it.

“The difference [now] is the smartphone,” which allows him to broadcast his current vigil to social networks and share sidewalk war stories with other fans around the world, he said. Mr. Casterline has even created a hashtag — #theuptownline — for his Twitter and Instagram followers.

Alone he is not, as Jedi master Yoda would say. A part of something bigger he is.

A global subculture of “Star Wars” fans is making sidewalk camps in anticipation of what is likely to be the year’s biggest film.

Bankrolled by the Walt Disney Co. and helmed by director-producer J.J. Abrams, who has been lauded for his relaunch of the “Star Trek” franchise, “The Force Awakens” is expected to reap as much as $2.5 billion during its first theatrical run, which would make it the highest-grossing movie in history, according to some estimates. Merchandising for film-related toys, games and other tie-ins is expected to yield an additional $2.5 billion for Disney.

On Thursday, Disney said the movie debuted with a record-setting $14.1 million from its first screenings Wednesday in 12 international markets, The Associated Press reported. The largest was France, where the film earned $5.2 million. It set a one-day sales record in Norway and Sweden.

More than $100 million in tickets have been presold in North America, the AP reported. The movie ticket service Fandango said it already has sold more tickets for “The Force Awakens” than any other movie over its entire theatrical run.

The film, the first in what is expected to be the final “Star Wars” trilogy, has received scores of positive reviews and enjoys a 95 percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

Meanwhile, the D.C. chapter of the 501st Legion: Vader’s Fist, a worldwide “Star Wars” fan club, will participate in events and screenings dressed in impeccably detailed and authentic-looking costumes throughout the weekend.

And unlike the Imperial henchman whose name it bears, the 501st Legion also lends a helping hand to young “Star Wars” fans (or padawans) in need.

“The 501st Stormtrooper Legion helps raise millions of dollars all over the world, [bringing] smiles to the kids that see us out there,” said Allen Shepherd, public relations officer for the D.C. chapter, known as the Old Line Garrison. “There is nothing quite like coming into a room filled with kids, and you see their faces light up as they see characters they have only known on the big and small screen coming to life.”

Local “troops” plan to see the film several times this weekend in addition to “working” various events around the District in Stormtrooper attire.

“It is a very special moment for me when people tell me that the character I am dressed as is their favorite. When kids smile and then the parents smile, it makes me smile,” said Jason Suchodolski, who is also a National Guardsman. “I only do characters with helmets so I can still maintain the character while I am grinning from ear to ear.”

One of the charities the 501st supports locally is the Travis Manion Foundation, founded in memory of a fallen sailor who gave his life in Iraq.

“I am a member of the armed forces, so supporting my fellow military members is very near and dear to me,” Mr. Suchodolski said.

Carleton Bryant contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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