The Force hasn't lost its appeal

Profits: `Phantom Menace' has made enough to please even earlier-grousing theater owners.

July 03, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The Force will be with us for at least another six weeks, and exhibitors can live with that.

Thanks to George Lucas and 20th Century Fox's insistence that theater owners show "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace" for at least 12 weeks, the summer's big blockbuster is still only halfway through its contractually mandated run.

And while the box-office returns haven't been enough to make the film the unprecedented blockbuster some had predicted, there's still enough money rolling in to keep exhibitors from grousing too loudly about having to show the film at least through mid-August.

"I think it's turned out pretty good for exhibitors," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks and analyzes box-office returns. "It's still holding its own; it's holding better than a lot of people thought it would. I think the 12-week commitment is going to work out OK."

Through Thursday, the film had made $351.7 million in the United States, placing it fourth on the all-time list of movie blockbusters. Most recently, it finished at No. 5 in the weekly box-office returns, bringing in $28.3 million.

"I can only tell you, if anybody had written a script, the picture would be performing to the script," says Tom Sherak, chairman, 20th Domestic Film Group, the film's distributors. "It's like a thoroughbred race horse put on Pimlico racetrack; it's performing like a champion. How could you expect anything more?"

"It's playing really well," agrees Brian Callaghan, spokesman for General Cinema, which is showing the film at two of its area theaters. "Any of our theaters that have the film are thrilled to have it."

"Attendance has been pretty good," says Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber. "Initially, it was a bit overwhelming, with the massive crowds and sold-out shows. It's still drawing a pretty good crowd, especially on weekends."

Prior to the film's May 19 opening, an unprecedented wave of hype convinced many that the film was destined to become the biggest thing to hit movie screens, eventually surpassing the record $600 million garnered domestically by "Titanic."

Perhaps because of those expectations, exhibitors who wanted "The Phantom Menace" in their theaters agreed to a list of conditions, including the requirement that it run for at least 12 weeks -- which meant tying up thousands of screens for almost the entire summer, traditionally the peak season for movie-going.

"We knew that going in," says Callaghan. "We were thrilled to get as many dates of `Star Wars' as we did."

Although some theater owners were grumbling from the start, things quieted down when the film set a box-office record, bringing in $28.5 million its first day. And while its opening weekend take didn't break the $72.1 million record of "Lost World: Jurassic Park," the film has reached the $100 million and $200 million marks faster than any film in history.

"This past weekend, it dropped only 25 percent over the last weekend," says Dergarabedian. "The percentage drops it's been having have been very, very good. They haven't been excessive."

"The movie business in the first quarter was in the proverbial doghouse," says Sherak. "It was down 6 to 8 percent in the first quarter [from last year, when `Titanic' ruled]. This picture has begun to make their summer. Business for this quarter is up now 8 percent. This picture jump-started the marketplace the momentum has just been carrying [exhibitors] through the summer."

Still, few people now expect the film to challenge "Titanic" and its position as the all-time moneymaker. Nor will it match the 15 weeks "Titanic" spent as No. 1; "Phantom Menace" spent three weeks atop the charts before being supplanted by "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Perhaps only George Lucas could make a film that brings in $300 million and have it labeled as something of a disappointment, but that's what happens when expectations are so high.

"A lot of people were expecting that $120 million mark in five days, but it just did not happen," says Dergarabedian. "Obviously, `Titanic's' record is not in jeopardy. It's a very strange thing in Hollywood; even when a film does this well, if the anticipation for the film runs this high, it's going to be seen as a disappointment."

"I don't think it's a 12-week picture," says Kiefaber. "I was never one to pump this up into the stratosphere as to what it would do. I think it's going to do about what George Lucas said it would do, make about $400 million. And that's not bad."

True enough. And even the film's stranglehold on so many of the nation's screens isn't as big a monopoly as it might seem. Because most theaters have more than one screen, exhibitors have been left with plenty of room to show other movies besides "Phantom Menace."

Plus no one wants to anger a director and a film studio who still have two more "Star Wars" chapters scheduled to come out.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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