Like a long distance runner training for a 10K or a mountain climber steeling themselves to conquer a towering peak, Jim Braden prepared for a grueling endurance test that would challenge himself physically and mentally.
His mission: tap into the Force to prove to the world that he was, indeed, the ultimate “Star Wars” fan. Instead of a sheer rock face or an uphill course, the gauntlet he had to pass through was outfitted with over-sized chairs and cup holders. But it was no less a trial.
“I wanted to demonstrate my passion,” Braden told Variety. “I grew up with ‘Star Wars.’ As a kid, the simple morality just appealed to me. Everybody likes a white hat hero they can get behind.”
Braden, a 40-year-old content strategist at Dell, was one of seven contestants who had signed up for the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” marathon. With the promise of seven years of free movies, a boatload of collector’s items, and the chance to be mythologized along the lines of a certain ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, being dangled tantalizingly before them, Braden and the contingent of George Lucas disciples agreed to sit through all six previous “Star Wars” films and an endless loop of “The Force Awakens.”
“We had a nifty trophy with the words ‘ultimate champion’ on it,” said John Smith, creative manager at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse that held the contest. “It’s odd. We had prizes that were worth tens of thousands of dollars, but at the end of the day, they just wanted that title.”
When the lights finally went up and the last contestant had tapped out, Braden had spent a total of 46 hours watching “Star Wars.” He had set through nine straight showings of “The Force Awakens.”
“We put ourselves through hell mentally and physically,” said Braden. “Watching it became almost a hallucinatory experience… one other guy complained of having chest pains and dropped out.”
His body may have been taxed, but not his enthusiasm for the return of the Skywalker clan. In fact, Braden plans to see “The Force Awakens” with his parents when they come to visit him for the holidays.
“I came out of it saying that I still enjoyed the movie,” said Braden. “That’s how you know it’s good.”
Michael Roberts, a friend of Braden’s since their days working together at an ad agency, said that he wasn’t surprised about the outcome. Braden’s super fandom had spilled over to his work place, with “Star Wars” paraphernalia adorning his desk. At home, his office is adorned with a life-sized replica of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, along with Darth Vader and Storm Trooper masks and Millennium Falcon and R2D2 models.
“He’s not just a fan,” said Roberts. “He’s a legitimate fanatic.”
When Roberts picked up his friend to drive him to the theater, Braden told him that he had been researching breathing exercises and Navy SEAL training for tips on how to make it through days of sitting in the theater. He’d decided to space out his caffeine intake by six hour increments; to subsist on fruits and nuts, so he’d stay hungry; to wear shorts and flip flops, so he’d be cold in the air-conditioned theater. The idea was that if he was uncomfortable, he wouldn’t doze off and forfeit his chance to win the crown.
“When Jim does something, he goes all in,” Roberts said. “The other people weren’t prepared for him.”
Going into the contest, Braden had one stipulation for the Drafthouse team. He wanted to sit next to his six-year old son Kyle during the first screening of “The Force Awakens.”
“I’d always dreamed that I’d be able to take my son to a new ‘Star Wars’ movie,” said Braden.
Watch the cast of “Star Wars” sing the iconic theme music: