Yoda’s lite sabre

Limited rollout puts cap on 'Clones' bow

With “Spider-Man” free-wheeling into a spot among the five biggest grossers of all time, the notoriously secretive seers at Lucasfilm Tuesday decided to explain their distribution strategy for “Stars Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

It will be a far more modest rollout than “Spider-Man” — 6,000 screens compared with 7,500 for “Spider-Man” and 8,100 on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

And Lucasfilm apparently will be spending a relatively skimpy amount on ad support for the latest installment in the well-established franchise — though that went undiscussed in an unusually detailed press release on distribution, which named no Lucasfilm execs.

Lucasfilm and distrib 20th Century Fox took pains to make clear that the conservative print run was strategic, noting filmmaker George Lucas wants to offer high-quality exhibition of the effects-laden sci-fier.

“To ensure optimum presentation quality for moviegoers, Fox and Lucasfilm have limited the release to theaters with digital sound, wherever it is available,” officials said in the press release. The release quoted no Lucasfilm or Fox execs.

But it also bears noting that film rental terms were much stiffer on “Clones,” whose rollout one Fox exec recently described as a “marathon rather than a sprint.” By contrast, Sony was keen to make “Spider-Man” available to as many prospective patrons as possible in the 13 days between that pic’s May 3 bow and the looming release of “Clones.”

“Clones” will mark the biggest digital bow ever for a major motion picture, with 94 digital screens included in worldwide rollout plans.

But that’s far fewer than originally envisioned for the digitally produced epic, as the industry’s ramp-up of digital exhibition has been hampered by slow-moving efforts to develop universal d-cinema engineering standards (Daily Variety, Feb. 13).

“Clones” will be digitally projected on 59 U.S. screens, including a half-dozen L.A.-area venues and three in greater Gotham. Another four digital screens are located in Canada and 31 in various international territories.

Worldwide plans also include near-day-and-date “Clones” bows in Europe and several Asian markets, with Latin America getting pic a bit later. “Clones” will open in 74 countries on Thursday and Friday, one of the biggest simultaneous worldwide bows ever.

As for pic’s marketing push, Lucas has consciously sought fewer promotional partners this time around. That potentially could cause Lucasfilm to spend heavier in the absence of freeby promos, but sources indicated outlays still won’t appreciably outpace the industry average of about $31 million for movie campaigns.

Tentpole pics like “Clones” normally have much higher marketing costs. But the “Star Wars” franchise is so well known that Lucas has historically resisted higher spending.

‘Spidey’ keeps spinning

Meanwhile, it’s week three for “Spider-Man” — which already seems a lock to elbow at least into the top five grossers of all time. And Universal unspools WorkingTitle laffer “About a Boy” in a counter-programming ploy.

U bows “Boy” in roughly 1,200 theaters Friday, with plans to add another 500 playdates for the following Memorial Day weekend.

“We believe it’s the alternative choice to what’s in the marketplace,” U distrib maven Nikki Rocco said.

For now, industry insiders are more focused on the prospect of a “Spidey” vs. “Clones” showdown.

Internet ticketer Fandango.com said Tuesday that recent advance sales have tilted toward “Clones” over “Spider-Man” by more than 3-to-1, and this weekend’s competish should easily go to the “Star Wars” prequel with its front-loaded base of franchise fan support. But the contest is much tougher to call thereafter.

” ‘Star Wars’ has an advantage due to its built-in long runs at many key theaters,” said David Davis, senior veep and box office analyst at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. ” ‘Star Wars’ is likely to play on the best screen in most multiplexes for several weeks because of its contractual arrangements.”

As with previous “Star Wars” film terms, Fox insisted exhibs agree to play “Clones” in premium venues for longer-than-usual mandatory runs.

Hanging on

Theater operators agreed to play “Clones” for at least four weeks in major markets — and up to 12 weeks when operators were free from “zone” competish in such cities. But to get theaters to play pic in as many auditoriums as possible in any one venue, it’s believed Fox relented and agreed to two-week mandatory runs in some number of competitive multiple-print locations.

Few suggest “Clones” will approach the historic $114.8 million opening for “Spider-Man.” But $100 mil is considered well within reach for the sci-fier over four days after bowing on Thursday.

Some handicappers are suggesting both pics seem destined to gross $350 million-$450 million domestically, with “Spidey” already well north of $225 million.

“We certainly have a good shot of getting in there,” Sony marketing and distrib topper Jeff Blake agreed. That’s something only five pics have done to date — including a couple previous installments in the “Star Wars” series — but it’s still a long way from “Titanic” territory.

Paramount’s 1997 shipwreck epic, the reigning B.O. champ of all time, grossed $600.8 million domestically and $1.6 billion worldwide.

“In no way, shape or form will either of these films approach that record,” Houlihan’s Davis declared. “That’s just a complete anomaly.”