‘Star’ crossed?

Mixed reax to first glimpse of 'Menace'

Polite applause and a wide range of reactions greeted the industry’s first full screenings of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” which unspooled for exhibitors Tuesday night in eight key North American cities.

Overall audience response to the long-awaited sequel was less than enthusiastic at industry-heavy screenings in New York and L.A., according to sources who attended the shows.

But industry pros remained almost unanimously convinced of the pic’s otherworldly grossing potential.

“I think it’s very big,” said a rival studio exec who attended a Los Angeles screening,

Similarly mixed reactions to the pic are already flying around cyberspace, courtesy of die hard “Star Wars” fans who foiled tight security to scam their way into the screenings which took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Washington D.C. and Dallas.

Twentieth Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak said he had heard only upbeat comments from exhibitors. He added that reports from Fox execs at various screening sites around the country were also excellent.

“It went very well as far as we’re concerned,” said Sherak.

Given the unprecedented hype which has preceded the release of “Menace,” some amount of disappointment is probably inevitable.

But according to several people who attended the 7 p.m. Loews Astor screening in New York, the audience was ready to embrace the film, but never did.

Said a well-regarded film business pro who attended the Gotham screening “There was polite applause, kind of tepid — not the sort of whooping and cheering you’d expect.”

That may have been due in part to a dysfunctional air conditioning system that turned the Times Square area theater into a virtual steam bath.

Climatic conditions aside, film buyers are notoriously poker-faced at trade screenings. (As one veteran theater exec put it, “If it’s terrible, you say it’s good. If it’s terrific, you say it’s good.”)

But many of the Tuesday night screenings were packed with miscellaneous theater chain employees and their families, who would have been expected to react less guardedly.

In L.A., many theater execs showed up two hours before the start of the 7 p.m. screening at Mann’s Westwood National Theatre in an effort to get good seats. The long wait, coupled with the even longer list of restrictions to which exhibs have had to submit in order to show the film, may have colored the experience for some viewers.

“The booking process has been long and involved,” said one exhibition exec with weary resignation. “We’ve been living this for months now. I’ll be glad to get it on the screen and get the race run.”

But even exhibs who were less than impressed by “Menace” acknowledged the pic could easily rack up $400 million in domestic ticket sales. That would giving it the biggest initial release of any film except “Titanic,” which cumed just over $600 million in North America.

The original “Star Wars” has the second highest lifetime cume with $461 million, but that includes $138 million from the pic’s 1997 reissue.

“Menace” is now expected to open in between 2,800 and 3,000 theaters. The number has inched up gradually over the past months due to a number of factors.

For one thing, many theater-owners have added digital sound capability in order to qualify to play the film.

Also, Fox has agreed to allow theaters in certain smaller markets to book the film for a minimum six-week run, as opposed to requiring the 8-week or 12-week engagements, which still apply to larger markets. The tiniest towns will now have a chance to book the pic for two weeks, starting June 25.

Some industry pros are now projecting the pic could take in between $200 million and $225 million by the end of Memorial Day weekend, just 12 days into its release. Fox’s “Independence Day” hit the $200 million mark on its 21st day of release.

One recurring comment from those who attended the screening was that the PG-rated pic is geared more towards kids than teens or adults.

“The only quibble I’ve heard is that it plays young,” said one industry insider who gave the pic a hearty thumbs up. “There’s no question of repeatability among kids. The only question is repeatability among adults, but it’s going to get them once.”

Much of the “Phantom Menace” buzz has emanated from aint-it-cool-news.com, the website which was created by the Austin, Texas-based Harry Knowles and has been the seat of buzz ever since the bad word-of-mouth it posted for “Batman Forever” helped derail the Warner Bros. franchise.

While it’s not clear how much of an influence unauthorized movie web sites like these exert on mainstream moviegoing, the Internet has been a key source of advance buzz on “Menace” for computer-savvy “Star Wars” devotees.

The feeling of many of the sites’ reviewers was that while much of the experience was positive, the film was overly kid-friendly to the detriment of audiences with their second set of teeth.

But not all the website reviews were bad. “As for the movie itself, it was good. As a science fiction film, it was excellent. But as a ‘Star Wars’ film? No,” writes one.

Fox’s Sherak, who continues to ride the pre-release rollercoaster of “Menace” hype with characteristic aplomb, said of the website postings, “It’s just something have to learn to live with. Welcome to the 20th Century.”

Added Sherak, “I think that when the picture opens it will speak for itself.”

(Claude Brodesser in New York contributed to this report.)