'Sith' tix off to stellar start

This article was updated on May 18, 2005

Selling an unprecedented number of advance tickets and sparking huge audience interest in industry tracking, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” storms into theaters tonight at one minute past midnight.

Though 20th Century Fox is maintaining cautious optimism — and emphasizing the cautious part — for the bow of George Lucas’ finale to his sci-fi epic, many industry observers think “Sith,” which is opening at 3,661 theaters with more than 9,000 prints, has the potential to shatter box office records this weekend.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 80% of tonight’s midnight shows were sold out. “And every time they sell out a midnight show, they add another,” said Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder. The studio hasn’t tallied all the advance sales — online ticket service Fandango.com reported it’s selling two “Sith” tix per second — but he estimated more than $20 million worth of tickets have been purchased so far.

Internationally, Fox said “Sith” ticket purchases in several territories have set advance sales records; several other offshore markets have already achieved a higher gross than the final takes for either “Episode I” and “Episode II.”

“We are seeing phenomenal advance ticket sales in many territories,” said Paul Hanneman, Fox Intl.’s exec VP for sales and strategic planning.

Studio reps also noted cooler-than-usual weather is expected this weekend in Europe, which probably will help spur attendance.

In the most recent tracking reports, “Star Wars” had a massive 45% unaided awareness — that is, nearly half of those polled knew the movie is opening without being prompted. And more than half of all males, both over and under 25 years old, said the pic was their first-choice title this weekend. About a quarter of women said the same thing.

The massive interest has led to many midnight screenings already selling out, so chains are making plans to play the pic until dawn.

AMC spokesman Pam Blase said some of its 200 theaters playing “Star Wars” have skedded 3:30 a.m. showtimes, and she added, “We’re already encouraging our theaters to add 6:30.”

Regal, the nation’s largest circuit, is making similar moves. “There’s a strong desire to be among the first to see ‘Star Wars,’ ” said Regal rep Dick Westerling. “In many of our locations, we are adding a second latenight show starting around 3 a.m. We also have some theaters that are going to run ‘Star Wars’ around the clock on opening day.”

Fandango said its advance sales were running 60% ahead of 2003′s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which counted $124 million in its first five days.

Midnight shows listed on the site for Gotham, L.A., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., were sold out as of Tuesday.

“It is gigantic,” said Fandango chief Art Levitt. “For those who are waiting for the opening bell to ring on summer, it’s rung loud and clear.”

“Star Wars” has been long expected to dominate the biz to such an extent this weekend — “Sith” tix account for 98% of all Fandango’s sales this week — that no other film will open in wide release over the frame. Indeed, the distribution heads of Paramount, Sony and Universal all were on vacation Tuesday.

Fox is opening “Star Wars” in more than 100 international markets this weekend. Only two major territories are not included in the day-and-date plans: South Korea (which will wait until May 26) and Japan (July 9).

In Belgium, where the pic opens Wednesday, all of the midnight shows are sold out.

France was the first country to show the new ‘Star Wars,’ playing in 300 cinemas and attracting 120,000 admissions. In Paris alone, 17,000 admisiions were reported by Fox.

In Malaysia, exhibs report fans are buying tickets to the first seven days of shows. Advance sales as of Thursday hit $1.5 million in Australia, $160,000 in New Zealand, $375,000 in Singapore and $40,000 in the Philippines — records in the latter two markets.

In Mexico, the Cineapolis chain sold $500,000 in the first week of sales, while Peru had the biggest advance sales ever for any film.

“Sith” will have to post some lofty numbers. The biggest single-day gross was set this weekend last year by “Shrek 2,” with $44.8 million on Saturday.

“The Matrix Reloaded” set the mark when it bowed on May 15, 2003, for the largest four-day opening with $134.3 million. The biggest three-day figure is still “Spider-Man’s” $114.8 million, set on May 3, 2002.

Execs throughout the industry are rooting for “Star Wars.”

“The whole industry is looking forward to huge numbers from ‘Star Wars.’ We’re looking for this to really jumpstart the summer for all of us,” said DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp, who is opening “Madagascar” next week. “After looking at tracking and talking to exhibitors, we think the movie is going to break the four-day all-time record.”

Snyder, though, said, “I would be thrilled to see something comparable to ‘Episode II,’ ” and added the recent weakness at the box office may put the records out of reach. “With the softness of the market, my expectations are realistic.”

Online betting site PinnacleSports.com has been taking bets on whether “Sith” makes it to the record books. Odds on it passing “Spider-Man’s” three-day mark have dropped from the opening line of 6-to-1 to this week’s 11-to-5. Odds that “Sith” eclipses “The Matrix’s” four-day total are even better at 5-to-9.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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