'Phantom's' $28 mil sets 1-day mark

With an opening day gross of $28,542,349, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” shattered all previous one-day box office records Wednesday, including the $26.1 million earned by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” on Sunday, May 25, 1997.

Put in perspective, “Menace” collected in a single weekday just $100,000 less than “Titanic” grossed in its entire first weekend. The highest previous Wednesday opening was $17.4 million for “Independence Day” on July 3, 1996.

Bowing on 2,970 theaters, “Menace” earned a stunning $9,610 per site — a number that would be considered great as a full weekend per screen average for most wide releases.

Below rivals’ predictions

While no one would deny the first day gross was spectacular, it actually fell below most rival distributors’ predictions, which had ranged from $30 million to $45 million based on attendance at post-midnight shows Tuesday night.

While everyone else on earth has been playing the how-high-can-it-go game for weeks, Lucasfilm president Gordon Radley said the filmmakers went into Wednesday with no particular figure in mind.

“We never really had expectations in terms of a number that was important,” Radley told Daily Variety. “It’s not about setting a record. ‘Star Wars’ is just about people having a great time at the movies with their friends and families. That’s what we hoped to accomplish.”

While the huge debut came as a surprise to no one in this galaxy, the question now, of course, is where the picture goes from here.

Historical precedent dictates that the gross should drop significantly Thursday, and then rebound today to near Wednesday’s levels.

Striking back Saturday

But the first real indicator of “Menace’s” long-term prospects will come Saturday, when grosses should actually be higher than Wednesday’s — which, of course, would mean a new one-day record.

In “Menace’s” favor is what might be called the kid factor. One prevalent criticism of the film has been that its eight-year-old central character and floppy-eared sidekick Jar Jar Binks target it squarely at the four-feet and under crowd.

Since few tykes were staying up ’til midnight Tuesday — or playing hooky from grade school Wednesday — their increased availability over the weekend should give the picture a big lift.

Also, while “Menace” was sold out virtually throughout its opening day in major city complexes, small town theaters were relatively quiet, with some cinemas in the South reporting grosses as low as $500. Attendance in those sites should pick up markedly starting this evening.

$120 mil possible

Assuming the picture follows the typical grossing pattern — not that anything about this movie has been typical — a five-day weekend cume of $120 million is still possible.

That would put it light years ahead of the previous five-day weekend record of $95.8 million (excluding advance screenings), set by “The Lost World.”

“We’re not evaluating this movie in terms of box office financial results,” Radley said. “It will have its own life and destiny. What we’re interested in is hopefully people are enjoying the film.”

Little advertising

While Lucasfilm and Fox have been criticized in the press for “overhyping” the picture, “Menace” managed to generate its record-breaking attendance with remarkably little paid advertising. For instance, no ads ran in last Sunday’s New York Times, which is virtually unheard of for a film opening three days later.

“It wasn’t like you needed to do advertising to make people aware of this movie,” said Radley. Still, tie-in ads from Lucasfilm’s promotional partners, including Pepsi-Cola and Taco Bell, have been plentiful.

Radley added that most of the intense media coverage of the film was not orchestrated by Lucasfilm or Fox publicists.

“We weren’t out there trying to get a story every day of the week,” he said. “In a lot of ways the media ran with it because of their own needs. (They) created the hype, and then they’re sitting around passing judgment on it.”