Darth mauls theaters

'Star Wars' bows round the clock

For thousands of “Star Wars” fans, the waiting was over this morning at 12:01, as the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” appeared onscreen in about 2,010 theaters across North America.

Many of the cinemas offered additional showings of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” in the wee hours of the morning to accommodate long lines of die-hard moviegoers who just couldn’t wait another day to see the latest installment of their favorite sci-fi epic.

About 120 theaters even featured round-the-clock showings — at least for the first full day of “Menace’s” release. Among the theaters “grinding out” the pic throughout the night were the Ziegfield and Union Square in New York, the Village and Chinese theaters in Los Angeles and the Mercado in Santa Clara.

An additional 960 theaters begin playing the pic today, bringing the number of North American locations to about 2,970.

Gross forecasts

Predicting “Menace’s” gross in the initial days of its run has become a favorite pastime among distribution and exhibition execs, and the public at large. Most, if not all, expect the highly anticipated sci-fi epic to soar past the alltime one-day record of $26.1 million set by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in 1997. Some prognosticators have put the number as high as $45 million.

Common estimates for the first five days range from $110 million to as much as $140 million.

Advanced tickets sales, which have been proceeding at a torrid pace since they began May 11, certainly seem to support those opinions. While a complete tally was unavailable Tuesday, AMC Theatres alone had taken in roughly $2.5 million through Sunday. Most of those sales were for admission to today’s screenings and for prime weekend shows.

Advances in advanced sales

Exhibitors agree that a number of factors make it difficult to compare advanced sales of “Menace” to those of previous films. For one thing, the recent growth of computerized ticketing has dramatically increased theaters’ ability to sell tickets weeks in advance.

“There’s never really been anything like this,” said AMC president Richie Fay. “There’s never been this high a demand for a Wednesday opening film. This is the benchmark that every big picture going forward will be compared to.”

Besides the opening day, three-day weekend and five-day weekend numbers, debate also centers on whether the pic will crack the $400 million mark over the length of its domestic run. So far, only the $600 million grossing “Titanic” has ever topped $400 million without the benefit of a reissue.

The original “Star Wars” has grossed $461 million in its lifetime — but that figure includes several reissues, including the record-breaking $138 million “Special Edition” re-release in 1997.

“Menace” will have the advantage of much higher ticket prices than any previous “Star Wars” installments. In fact, many theaters in major cities, including Los Angeles, have raised their evening adult admission prices in just the last few months.

The total theater-count, 2,970, is considerably higher than Lucasfilm and Fox originally planned. A combination of overwhelming demand from theater owners and Fox’s decision to allow a six-week run in the smallest markets bloated the number from the originally projected 2,600 theaters.

Digital coming soon

Viewers curious to see “Menace” projected digitally will have to wait until June 18, when two theaters each in Los Angeles and New York will set aside one screen a piece for filmless presentation using equipment from Texas Instruments and CineComm.

The digital screenings will offer the general public a glimpse of what many believe to be the future of moviegoing. Contrary to published reports, however, the film will not be transmitted via satellite to the theaters. It will instead reside on a high-capacity storage device.

While Fox execs would not discuss the exact quantity of prints it had distributed, the number is estimated at about 5,500.

While many industryites, including George Lucas, said they think it’s unlikely “Menace” will break the “Titanic” record, people outside the film biz — at least those answering questions on the Internet — are extremely bullish about the pic’s prospects.

According to an online Yahoo! poll, 84% of respondents think the film will break “Titanic’s” record; 61% think it will gross over $800 million in the U.S.; and 32% think it will top a billion dollars.