In Europe, waiting for the Force

SUN JOURNAL

Movies: Fans of the "Star Wars" series are going to great lengths to see the newest episode, including trips to British theaters and viewing a crude bootlegged copy.

July 28, 1999|By Stephen Lynch | Stephen Lynch,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The soundtrack is here. The novel, too. Even breakfast cereals with the appetizing face of Darth Maul on the box. But for most Europeans, "Star Wars" is the phantom presence.

Under the vagaries of international film distribution, "The Phantom Menace" opened this month in Britain, nearly two months after its U.S. premiere and six weeks after opening in Australia. Next month, it will reach Germany and France. And finally, about the time it vanishes from screens in the United States, it comes here, to Eastern Europe.

It's enough to make Peter Nemeth roar like a wookie.

"It's very tough. Fans are panicking," says the president of the Hungarian "Csillagok Haboruja" ("Star Wars") fan club. "I don't know why there's such a delay."

Desperate, Nemeth organized a trip to see the British premiere, much in the way 3,000 British fans hopped flights in May to see the New York opening. Impatient French are expected in London for a similar exodus.

It is, Britain's Guardian newspaper said, "the first movie premiere ever to impact the tourism industry."

For Nemeth, there's only one problem: He doesn't speak English.

"It's all right, I've read the book. And I want to hear the original sound," he says. "The Hungarian dubbing on the first films was really bad. Darth Vader had a woman's voice."

If U.S. fans thought it was tough to wait until May 23 for "Star Wars," imagine what it's like waiting until September. Months after reviews have popped up on the Internet, after the John Williams compact disk has given away plot points on its track listings, the premiere can't help but be disappointing.

Such is the way with all American blockbusters in Europe, because they take at least two months to cross the Atlantic. What is "The Matrix"? Poland has no idea.

Often the delay is caused simply by the time it takes to line up distributors, make enough prints, book theaters and dub or subtitle movies. On other occasions, a decision is made by local middlemen -- or even the studios themselves -- that the film won't sell abroad.

The choices are fluky: direct-to-video Steven Seagal films often make the big screens in Germany and other markets, while comedies -- even hit comedies -- are a tough sell. "Austin Powers" opened last month in most of Europe -- that is, the original "Austin Powers." The sequel shamed many distributors to release a film they passed on the first time, thinking it was too difficult to translate.

"Austin Powers" is another example, too, of the way an underdog takes its time emigrating. Having not lined up international distribution for its surprise-hit horror film "Scream," Miramax released the sequel before the original in Eastern Europe.

But "The Phantom Menace" delay is affected by another Force: namely marketing. Despite the puzzled reactions of British fans (most of the actors, after all, are from that country), LucasFilms wanted to space out the advertising and press coverage for maximum effect.

The first round of "Star Wars" hype -- the covers of Newsweek and Time, the television specials -- trickled over in May. After a monthlong cooling-off period, Ewan McGregor and his colleagues now are splashed across the British tabloids.

The film is also late coming because U.S. studios think geographically, lumping Britain with Europe rather than the country with which it shares a language, one distributor says.

"They like to release titles around the same time across Europe, so television stations like MTV can advertise in all the markets at once," says Laszlo Zehetmayer, whose Mirax International Film Distribution Ltd. covers much of Eastern Europe. "For the other countries, it takes a month to subtitle a film, two months to dub it. Everyone has to wait until that's finished."

Any fears that "Star Wars" will suffer from overexposure in the meantime? Maybe. The Guardian has run mostly negative fan reviews for weeks: "Rubbish," one groused. "Fell asleep three times," another moaned.

But in Japan, where the film opened early this month, the film set a record-breaking 1.48 billion yen ($12.1 million) in box-office receipts in its first two days of release.

British theaters are expecting similar records despite the negative hype, and, like their Japanese and U.S. peers, rabid fans are lined up outside (though they've waited a week, not a month, as in Los Angeles and New York). The backlash can't be too bad: One of the Guardian's more popular Web features is a scene-by-scene rundown of the movie "for those who can't wait."

Anticipation, for many, has only heightened the demand. Not that everyone is happy with the holding pattern. Even the British Broadcasting Corp. criticized 20th Century Fox on its "Watchdog" program, while the Phantom Mania British Web page proposed a "damn fool idealistic crusade" to steal the movie from the United States. One Norwegian fan complained online about the "ploy" to milk merchandising dollars from the delay.

And, as Yoda points out, anger leads to the dark side. That is, pirate versions.

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