Exhibs expected to abide by rules

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequel is making major waves on three fronts, affecting exhibitors, advertisers and even critics.

Exhibitors lucky enough to book “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” into their theaters will have to abide by some strict rules — or else — but distrib 20th Century Fox is giving a break to Cannes-bound critics. And Lucasfilm has signed an unprecedented deal of food tie-ins that will link Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and 8 billion Pepsi cans.

Fox has warned theater owners that they will pay a penalty — and may even have their prints confiscated — if a litany of requirements is not met. But exhibs, who are expecting to get news as early as this week about which complexes will be offered the sci-fi prequel, are not likely to balk at the strict rules.

Most cinema execs believe “Menace” will be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and are willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it.

Conditions for playing the highly anticipated pic include:

  • The film must run in the largest auditorium in the complex and cannot move to a smaller room for the minimum length of the run without permission from Fox (Variety, March 22-28).

  • Minimum runs are eight or 12 weeks — depending on the market — for theaters that open the film on its May 19 release date. A four-week run is available for theaters that start playing the film five weekends later, on June 18.

  • If an exhib commits to playing the film on two or three screens in a multiplex, the film must stay on those screens for the minimum run as well.

  • In competitive zones — where more than one exhibitor has theaters — the film must play on at least three screens.

  • Exhibs will get 100% of their house allowance for the first screen, 50% for the second and 25% for any additional screens.

  • Interlocking, which allows theaters to use one print to present a film on two screens, is prohibited.

  • Exhibitors may not deduct additional security expenses from rental fees.

  • Theaters are not to honor passes for the first eight weeks.

  • Payment is to be made within seven days (30-60 days is typical) for the first several weeks.

  • Paid onscreen advertising is prohibited for the first two weeks.

  • No more than eight minutes of trailers are to run before the film. (Fox has attached 2-1/2 minutes of trailers to the beginning of the pic.)

  • Theaters can begin playing the two-hour, 11-minute film at 12:01 a.m. on May 19.

While some exhibitors griped that Fox is taking advantage of the expectations surrounding the film, many believe studio reps could have gotten pretty much whatever they had asked for.

“These are all things that have been done before,” said a former exhibition exec.

“Menace” will screen for exhibitors in early May. A senior Fox exec declined to comment on the requirements.

Marketing pact

Under its $2 billion, exclusive marketing pact with Lucasfilm, PepsiCo. Inc. recently wrapped TV spots promoting its various tie-ins for “Phantom Menace.”

But in a unique twist to traditional fast-food and snack-food tie-ins, Tricon Global Restaurants, the fast-food chain operator that Pepsi spun off in 1997, will use the initial TV spot to advertise “Phantom Menace” contests and promotions at all three of its restaurant chains — Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC.

The “Phantom Menace” spot, which will begin running in early May, marks the first time the three chains have used a joint campaign. (Pepsi inked its promotional pact with Lucasfilm in 1996, so by the time the soft drink behemoth spun off its fast-food divisions a year later, Tricon was able to hold onto its share of the “Star Wars” deal.)

According to one source close to the project, the first TV ad features a young boy who is intent on seeing “Phantom Menace” on opening day, and eventually finds a way.

Sources said Pepsi and Tricon also shot individual spots for each of the restaurant chains, as well as for Pepsi’s own soft drink division and for its snack-food subsid, Frito-Lay. As part of the cola campaign, Pepsi will reportedly distribute 8 billion cans of its various soft drinks featuring “Phantom Menace” characters.

Yoda and Dew

Additionally, instant prizes will be given to the recipients of randomly-placed, limited edition Yoda cans (leading one to envision the spot for Pepsi’s Mountain Dew with Yoda spouting his signature: “No, try not. Dew or dew not. There is no try.”)

Each of the restaurant chains also will offer instant-win prizes for food and soft drinks, and collect-and-win prizes, highlighted by a $1 million cash award.

But more than the free tacos, pizza and fried chicken, Tricon is betting that customers will flock to its three chains to collect the 28 new and different “Star Wars”-related toys Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut will be giving away in kids’ meals and selling separately.

Each of the three chains will have toys or promotional products that will be unique to its restaurants.

Lucasfilm did not return calls seeking comment.

Crix options

Last May, Sony didn’t seem to mind that most of the leading film critics in America would be at the Cannes Film Festival when “Godzilla” was unveiled for the press stateside, and therefore would be reviewed by second-stringers in many top newspapers and magazines.

A similar situation is cropping up this year in regard to “Star Wars: Episode I — the Phantom Menace,” but Fox is offering an alternative solution.

The year’s most anticipated film — which should, admittedly, be critic-proof — is set to open May 19, during the May 12-23 Cannes fest. Twentieth Century Fox is accommodating fest-bound critics, providing they’re willing to stop off in Gotham on their way to France, by permitting them to attend either one of the pic’s first two screenings at the New York City junket on May 7 or 8.

That will give them enough time to file their reviews in advance and still hit the Croisette by Cannes’ opening day. The first West Coast screenings of George Lucas’ space epic aren’t planned until either May 10 or 13.

(Todd McCarthy contributed to this report.)

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