By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer
With the Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies gathering steam as cultural touchstones, George Lucas and his Star Wars crew are defending their venerable franchise with an expanded online presence.
This month, the hugely popular official Web site Starwars.com adds a premium service that, for $19.95 a year, will offer the earliest pictures and news tidbits about the next film, a personalized e-mail address and subscriber-only online chats with filmmakers and actors.
The extra service, dubbed Hyperspace, also will offer DVD-style extras, such as a huge battle scene that was cut from Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Also on tap for subscribers:
Online access to the upcoming Cartoon Network animated shorts Star Wars: Clone Wars.
An enhanced message board.
A twice-weekly newsletter.
No advertising when visiting Starwars.com.
Beginning today through Monday, Starwars.
com will give free access to Hyperspace to everyone who visits the main site. Subscriptions kick in Tuesday.
To keep its regular fan base happy, the site is also sprucing up the free content that has drawn an estimated 4 million visitors to the site, which encompasses more than 7,000 pages of content.
The free site is being redesigned; its new look also debuts Tuesday.
It will feature more news, photos, games and the "expanded universe" of games, books, fan fiction and conventions. Also included are links to special children's content, downloads, a visual gallery, quotes, a message board, merchandise for sale and the Star Wars Databank, a sprawling guide to characters, aliens, planets, vehicles and details from all the films.
The free site also promises reports from the set of Star Wars Episode III, set to begin shooting in Australia this month.
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