‘Phantom’ flock to lock in record start

Auds eyeing 35 million seats

In cities and towns across the nation, the lines are already snaking around the block as the army of “Star Wars” fans begins the ritual of buying tickets and camping out until 12:01 a.m. next Wednesday, when the fourth installment of George Lucas’ space opera opens.

Industry pundits are confident that “The Phantom Menace” will break records for biggest single day, weekend, five-day holiday and first-week box office standards.

Currently, Universal’s “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” holds those records with respective grosses of $26.1 million, $72.1 million, $98.8 million and $104.9 million.

35 million seats

Though the exact number of theaters and screens for “Phantom Menace” are still pending, an exhib source claimed that distributor Fox has mapped out a release process that will ensure at least 35 million seats available during the five-day launch.

Playing at a near-capacity level, the film would gross between $120 million and $140 million under such a scenario. Even with steep declines after opening week, that would put the film in line to generate a domestic gross in the neighborhood of $400 million.

“Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” is finalizing dates that should place it in 2,900 to 3,000 theaters domestically and on 5,000 screens. It’s a comparable launch to 1997’s “Independence Day,” but trails the record held by “Godzilla,” released last summer in 3,310 locations, which nudged out the 3,306 playdate run of “Lost in Space” from April 1998. It’s also lighter than last week’s 3,210 playdate debut of “The Mummy.”

‘Wars’ beat ‘Jaws’

A lot has changed in exhibition since the original “Star Wars” debuted in May 1977 in limited release in the top 50 markets. The film superceded “Jaws” as the all-time box office champ, but the process took more than six months during its yearlong theatrical run. “Star Wars” and its two subsequent chapters went on to a global theatrical gross of almost $1.8 billion including its 1997 reissues.

Recent high-profile summer pics have aimed for the $50 million three-day weekend launch introed in 1993 by “Jurassic Park.” “Batman Forever” topped it in 1994 with $52.8 million. Among the more prominent titles to reach those climes were “Independence Day” with $50.2 million in 1996 and “Men in Black” the following year, grossing $51.1 million its opening weekend.

The long-term prognosis for the first chapter of a new cycle of “Star Wars” movies is less assured. The majority of advance reviews have been tepid, and even die-hard fans weaned on the series who attended first-look screenings have voiced disappointment, albeit with the caveat that no film could possibly live up to such stellar expectations.

But Fox execs are heartened by good-natured crowds that formed for tickets Wednesday.

“From what I know, there hasn’t been the slightest problem on (the) line,” said Fox Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Sherak. “In a lot of ways, this is like what happened when Streisand did her tour. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and positive feelings.”