Case of `Star Wars flu' could sap workday

Opening: With many expected to play hooky to catch George Lucas' epic, $320 million in productivity could be lost, a study says.

May 16, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

When the 40-person staff of BreakAway Games, a computer-game maker in Hunt Valley, shuts down today to see Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, management won't consider it goofing off.

It will consider the retreat "research and development."

"It's our religion. It's part of our culture. Without these sorts of things, the guys that work here can't get on," said Deborah Wahler, president of the company, which develops game software for the youth market as well as combat simulations for the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and the NATO Defense College in Italy. "There's something good longer-term that will come out of them seeing this. It's better than a beer party."

The company will foot the $300 bill for tickets for the programmers and artists whose desks at work are adorned with models of starfighters and robot droids, "although I don't know if I'll subsidize the popcorn," Wahler said.

The economic impact of Star Wars' opening today will be more than popcorn - or peanuts, economists say.

A Chicago outplacement firm estimates that the midweek debut of the latest in the science-fiction series will cost nearly $320 million in lost productivity and absenteeism today.

The tech sector will be hit especially hard by what has been dubbed "Star Wars flu" because of the film's appeal to young people who work in computer-related fields, said Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Cities with sizable technology economies such as Boston, Seattle and Dallas will be affected, it said. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia may also feel a heavy impact, based on heavy attendance in those cities in 1999 when Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, the previous film in the series, also launched in midweek.

A May day of hooky for techies and others, however, is a trifle compared with the economic force of director George Lucas' Star Wars franchise.

The serial has produced worldwide box-office revenue of $3.2 billion since it began in 1977, according to Twentieth Century Fox. The creation has been credited with revolutionizing everything from visual-effects technology to toy merchandising, including $6.5 billion in revenue for Star Wars items alone. The series' immense popularity hastened the overall creep in movie ticket prices, some say.

Herbert H. Rozoff, a Challenger spokesman, said the company was moved to study Star Wars' impact three years ago when president John A. Challenger said that he was taking a day off to see Episode I. When that news elicited some guffaws, Challenger predicted that others would do likewise and decided to calculate the effect. Movies typically open on a weekend, but Lucas launched it during the workweek, presumably to fuel publicity.

Challenger, which has gained some publicity with its study, estimated that today's productivity drop will exceed the $300 million lost for the opening of Episode I, or the $90 million lost in greater Chicago when it was riveted to a Bulls' championship run during the Michael Jordan era.

"We rarely come across things like this, but it almost has the impact of a national holiday on productivity," said Anirban Basu, director of applied economics for Towson University's RESI research institute. He compared the debut to the 1995 verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a cultural event powerful enough to disrupt the workweek.

"If you looked down from space on the macro-economy, you will have a one-day distribution from various types of companies to the movie and entertainment industry, but the economy will survive," Basu said, referring to production. "Given that unemployment is rising, though, employers can say to their workers, `You're going to have to make up those hours, pal.'"

Tech executives said their industry is given to such unusual hours, with programmers writing code deep into the night and on weekends, that a few hours off or even a day in midweek isn't so unusual.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, the 1930s-era Baltimore movie house where fans have been known to wait in line for hours or even days for a rare blockbuster, said the technological bent of Star Wars' faithful was evident two weeks ago when some camped out for tickets.

Some came equipped with laptop computers with wireless Internet connections and Web-cams so they could work or record the festivities.

"Yes, every three years, there's the `Star Wars Flu' that goes around," he said of the midweek opening. "It's a little odd in terms of the actual date, and I've never heard a fully rational explanation for it.

"Predominantly, it's a 20-something phenomenon, but we've had multigenerations present, just like Grateful Dead concerts in the old days," said Kiefaber, whose car license plate, "THX 1138," refers to the title of Lucas' science-fiction directing debut more than 30 years ago. "I like it when I pull up at the curb and several hundred people at once get it."

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