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Star of trailer wars

Lucas, Fox fire up ShoWest over 'Phantom Menace'

FROM SHOWEST
LAS VEGAS — Under tight security and immense expectations, 20th Century Fox and George Lucas managed to present the only star that could upstage the raw theatrics of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at ShoWest on Wednesday: the premiere of the second trailer for “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace.”

Before screening the 2-1/2-minute trailer during a late-evening event sponsored by Fox and hosted by “Phantom Menace” promotional partner Pepsi, Lucas announced that Fox will now release the hotly anticipated “Star Wars” prequel on May 19, two days earlier than originally scheduled.

Lucas said the film’s release was moved up in order “to give fans a head start and give families a chance to see it on the weekend.”

Digital doings

Lucas also used the event to announce a groundbreaking move to release a digital version of “Episode 1” on four screens beginning on June 18. The director said “Phantom Menace,” which had been shot on film as well as in digital, had been remastered digitally for this select run.

Lucas previously had said that he intended to shoot the next two installments of the “Star Wars’ franchise entirely in digital format, but the declaration Wednesday served as further notice that Lucas was indeed the leader of the digital brigade and was serious about converting the film industry to this new tech-nology.

And “Phantom Menace” may be just the sort of ultra-high-profile endorsement the digital cinema business needs to be taken seriously.

Earlier that day, Lucasfilm inked separate agreements with CineComm Digital Cinema and Texas Instruments to provide the digital projection expertise for the trial digital release in June.

While Fox is receiving a distribution fee for releasing “Episode 1” (Lucas owns all rights to the “Star Wars” films), it’s understood that Lucasfilm will take on the costs of enhancing the four theaters for digital projection.

Neither Fox nor Lucasfilm would say which theaters would be upgraded to screen the film, but a source close to the project said that because Texas Instru-ments and CineComm want to take full advantage of Lucas’ endorsement, the theaters would be selected from top media markets New York and Los Angeles.

The 2-1/2 minutes of “Phantom Menace” was about the only thing that could take ShoWest attendees’ minds off the steamy Cruise/ Kidman teaser for “Eyes Wide Shut” that Warner Bros. screened earlier in the day. Now, as one exhibitor said after the “Menace” screening, “Let’s just get on with it,” echoing the eagerness among theater owners to see, and then hopefully release, the completed film, which is expected to be one of the biggest box office grossers of all time.

Fox has begun preliminary discussions with exhibitors about terms for the release, but a decision won’t be made until the studio, whose executives haven’t even seen the film, can screen it for theater owners. Fox will announce which theaters, and how many, will be releasing the film within the next four weeks.

The ShoWest event was emceed by 20th domestic film group chairman, Tom Sherak, who introduced News Corp. prexy and chief operating officer Peter Chernin and Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic, both of whom made short presentations.

Sherak also presented “Star Wars” composer John Williams, whose appearance was greeted with a standing ovation. Williams, who just returned from London where he had completed the score for “Phantom Menace,” led the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra through the main title from the original “Star Wars,” before introducing Lucas.

Security alert

In an effort to stop unauthorized reproductions of the trailer and characters from the film, Fox and Lucasfilm stepped up security at the Wednesday event. As the throng filed into the Bally’s Hotel ballroom, security guards checked their bags, and Sherak later implored the attendees to “please stop” anyone seen trying to film the clip.

The Wednesday event was the first time the new trailer was screened, but by Thursday morning, Internet denizens were able to download the full trailer via Lucasfilm’s official “Star Wars” Web site, http://www.starwars.com (as well as through Apple Computer Inc.’s http://www.apple.com).

Though Fox would have liked to have the new “Phantom Menace” clip attached to its current space actioner, “Wing Commander,” according to sources, Lucasfilm objected to the trailer being attached solely to the CD-ROM game turned feature and asked Fox to send it out independently.

While the focus of the event was clearly on “Phantom Menace,” during his speech, Mechanic managed to squeeze in a loose schedule for Fox’s upcoming releases, extending into 2002.

Among the films the Fox topper said he hoped to have in the coming years are a summer 2000 release of the comic-based feature “X-Men”; a 2001 release of “The Planet of the Apes” remake, which “Apollo 13” scribe Bill Broyles recently pacted to rewrite from scratch; James Cameron’s follow-up to “Titanic” (Mechanic said he has an idea of what Cameron is mulling, but isn’t exactly sure what that film will be) for release in summer 2001; and in 2002, the release of “Star Wars: Episode 2.”

Mechanic also said that Fox Animation Studio’s second animated release has been renamed from “Planet Ice” to “Titan AE” (AE representing, After Earth), which will be released in summer 2000.

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