Distribs avoid 'Phantom' with summer bottleneck

In an effort to avoid being crushed by the looming “Star Wars” prequel, distributors have inadvertently created the most jam-packed July in recent memory.

The latest early summer movie to move out of the orbit of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is Sony’s Jeff Bridges-Tim Robbins thriller “Arlington Road.” The pic has been shifted from May 14 to July 9.

According to SPR president Jeff Blake, one reason for the move was “Menace,” which bows May 19. Another was the surprisingly strong holding power of “The Matrix,” which continues to be a force at the box office.

While the only other pics opening wide on July 9 are Universal’s raunchy teen comedy “American Pie” and MGM’s “Stigmata,” “Arlington” will face holdover competition from Warner Bros.’ Will Smith starrer “Wild Wild West,” which bows July 2.

But the going gets really rough starting the weekend of July 16, when Warner Bros.’ “Eyes Wide Shut” squares off against New Line’s “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and 20th Century Fox’s “Lake Placid.”

The following weekend, Buena Vista’s “Inspector Gadget” goes toe-to-toe with DreamWorks’ Jan De Bont-helmed chiller “The Haunting” and U’s Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy comedy “Bowfinger’s Big Thing.”

Then, on July 30, it’s the Julia Roberts-Richard Gere romancer “Runaway Bride,” WB’s shark thriller “Deep Blue Sea,” Sony’s kidpic “Muppets From Space” and BV’s Spike Lee-helmed “Summer of Sam.”

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