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‘Menace’ maneuvers

'Star' shuffles locales as exhibs play hardball with Lucas

“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” may be the year’s most anticipated film, but because of an unprecedented game of distributor-exhibitor hardball, the pic looks like it will end up being shown on some less-than-top screens in the country’s two biggest cities.

“Phantom Menace” will play for just four weeks at the most prestigious theaters in Hollywood and Westwood, despite LucasFilm and 20th Century Fox’s previous insistence that major market theaters keep the pic onscreen for 12 weeks.

Meanwhile, prominent Manhattan exhibitor Loews Cineplex will not play the pic on any of its Gotham screens, after Fox and the circuit were unable to agree on rental terms.

Fox has inked a modified “four-wall” deal for “Menace” at the Mann Village in Westwood and the Mann Chinese in Hollywood through June 17. After that, pic will segue to General Cinema’s smaller and less glamorous Avco and Galaxy in those two areas.

In a four-wall deal, the distributor pays the theater owner a guaranteed fee to play the picture, as opposed to a traditional film rental arrangement in which the distributor gets a percentage of ticket sales.

Theater chain execs could not be reached; Fox execs declined comment. But sources speculated one reason Fox didn’t just pull out of the Village and Chinese theaters altogether was to accommodate the line of die-hard “Star Wars” fans who’ve been lining up outside the venues for more than a month, waiting to be first to buy tickets and get into the theaters.

As recently as last week, “Menace” was expected to play virtually all summer in the Village and Chinese. The change has thrown schedules in the two key markets into disarray, with distribution and exhibition execs scrambling to shore up their summer bookings.

While exhibitors playing “Menace” expect it to do tremendous business, many have been grumbling for months about what they see as unreasonable demands by LucasFilm and Fox in relation to “Star Wars.”

After lengthy talks, Fox and Loews Cineplex apparently deadlocked over rental terms on the circuit’s state-of-the-art Manhattan sites, which include the 84th St. and Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side and the brand new all-stadium Kips Bay 15 on Second Ave.

Loews is said to have accelerated the construction of its expensive Kips Bay site in order to have it ready in time for the May 19 “Menace” opening.

The sticking point, sources said, was Fox’s demand for a “floor,” or minimum percentage of the box office It is Loews’ policy not to pay floors in Manhattan and the company apparently did not want to set a precedent, even for the long-awaited “Star Wars” pic.

The studio’s bottom-line approach to booking seems to go against earlier statements by the filmmaker that presentation quality would be the determining factor in which theaters got the pic.

Still, the chain is expected to play “Menace” in roughly 200 sites nationwide, including some New York complexes outside of Manhattan.

“Menace” is now set to open at six theaters in Manhattan: the Clearview Ziegfield, the Clearview First & 62nd St. Cinema, United Artists’ Union Square 14, the Olympia Twin on 103rd St. and Broadway, the Murray Hill and the newly refurbished 86th Street.