In the universe of blockbusters, “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” surely ranks as the all-time anomaly.
The lines of anxious fans will certainly be longer than ever at the box office, and pundits are safely predicting it will be a mega-hit.
Yet the money being spent to tout the film is a fraction of the promo budget of any other summer blockbuster.
Its guiding light, George Lucas, has been singularly silent on the interview circuit.
And then there’s the question of proprietorship. Spider-Man belongs to Sony. Harry Potter is all Warners. But while Fox distributes “Star Wars,” it doesn’t own even so much as a stray fragment.
It’s all Lucas, all the time.
The last installment, “The Phantom Menace” in 1999, was an unqualified hit, earning $923 million at the global box office.
Despite the success, the film was the target of negative rumblings about Lucasfilm’s dogmatic demands on Fox — and, in turn, on exhibitors — and about the oversaturation of “Phantom” merchandise.
And many people, including die-hard fans, felt the film had lost the tone and excitement of the first three pics, with by-the-number action sequences and lame characters like Jar Jar Binks; there were widespread fears about what this might bode for the fifth installment.
So this time around, Lucas & Co., though isolated in their bucolic Lucas Valley compound, have apparently been on a learning curve, trying to calm the waters for colleagues and fans. Lucas has ordered up extensive body-and-fender work to repair dents left by “Phantom Menace.”
In 1999, Lucasfilm toppers were a little antsy about releasing their first new “Star Wars” film in 16 years, and that tension led to rigid negotiations with 20th Century Fox.
Fox execs, naturally, bridled at the treatment.
This time around, both sides say things are much smoother.
“The Fox people have been wonderful,” enthuses Lucasfilm VP Jim Ward. “We’re very hands-on but we also recognize we can’t do it alone.”
Fox’s financial participation is limited to handling worldwide theatrical distribution in exchange for an estimated 8%-10% — a below-average fee, even for a rent-a-system agreement — with Lucas reimbursing Fox for prints and advertising.
Deal, which is basically risk-free for Fox, was negotiated in 1998 and also covers the next film in 2005. Fox also handles worldwide video distribution on the franchise, but Lucasfilm has always retained foreign TV rights. “Lucas negotiates the best deal in Hollywood (for himself), but it’s still going to be a lot of money for News Corp.,” notes box office analyst David Davis with investment bank Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. “Any studio would love to have that deal.”
Fox should gain at least $50 million, and could earn significantly more. In the high stakes world of movie gambles, that ain’t chump change. But considering the worldwide gross could be $1 billion, it’s pretty low, and certainly a smaller share than other studios will rake in with their summer tentpoles.
But Fox receives clear benefits from having trailers for its pics — most likely “Minority Report” and “Like Mike” — attached to “Clones,” plus the intangible boost of its logo seen and fanfare heard before every showing.
Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder says “Clones” will bow with a saturation-level 3,000-plus engagements. Double- or triple-booking in many theaters will mean a screen count north of 5,000, he notes.
That’s lower than “Harry Potter” or “Spider-Man,” but it’s a huge number considering the stringent terms that the distrib is demanding.
Fox wouldn’t discuss rental terms, but it’s believed exhibs will agree to similar terms as for “Phantom Menace.”
That would mean big-city exhibs giving up 70% of the box office for the first four weeks — with a four-week minimum run — and smaller market exhibs relinguishing the same percentage for the first three weeks.
Internationally, Fox is taking more of a day-and-date approach. The film will open in nearly 50 countries May 16-18, covering most of Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Most of Latin America and Japan will see the pic launch in June or July.Domestically, several dozen digital projectors have been put in place over recent weeks specifically to accommodate “Clones.” As recently as 2001, Lucasfilm was hoping for several hundred, but the digital rollout has been problematic.While there were 40 or so existing digital-projection sites, most won’t be used because Lucasfilm has security concerns over that older equipment (even though they were used for the digital exhibition of Fox’s “Ice Age” and some other releases). Barco and Christie projectors being installed by digital middlemen Technicolor and Boeing feature boosted encryption technology.
And at least a handful of digital screens will be in place in the U.K. and much of Europe when “Clones” launches simultaneously with the domestic unspooling; some number of digital screens are also anticipated for pic’s later bows in Japan and Latin America.
As for merchandising, “They haven’t overshipped or oversaturated,” asserts Toy Wishes publisher Jim Silver.
Last time, $650 million worth of “Star Wars” goodies were shipped, but only $500 million were sold.
“This time, they’re shipping $250 million. They’re sticking with what’s always been very successful,” says Silver.
The “Clones” geegaws include a much-improved selection of collector and toy lines, mostly focusing on action figures, light sabers and games.
“What we learned was that ‘Star Wars’ is pretty powerful around the world, with close to $1 billion gross and $1.2 billion in licensed product sales,” says Ward. “But we also learned that you can overdo it on licensing. This time, we’re a little more subtle and focused with less licensees and products.”
The awareness of “Clones” is so high that media spending has been minimal.
“We don’t do things like ads during the Super Bowl because we don’t need to,” Ward says. “The awareness for it is going to build very quickly.”
However, the marketing has been broadened to include young females, with the first trailer highlighting the “forbidden love” angle.
“Our sweet spot is kids 8 to 12, but we’ve managed to connect with teenage girls this time so our tracking numbers are very strong,” Ward notes.
There is also much more buzz about the film, saying the story and characters in “Episode 2” seem closer to those in the original “Star Wars.” Or as one exec put it, “Yoda fights in this one.”
Domestically, the pic also stands to benefit from the number of megaplexes built in the last few years.
“I believe we’re going to see $100 million in domestic gross in the first four days,” says Davis.
The exec adds that “the new film should top $1 billion. Tickets are more expensive and it’s in bigger, better theaters.”
The film also looks to benefit from the fact that domestic box office has been operating at unseen heights, coming off a winter where two pics — “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” — topped $300 million and now headed for as much as $9 billion this year, a gain of $1 billion over last year.
Just as in 1999, when “The Mummy” opened to massive B.O. two weeks ahead of “Phantom Menace,” the biz should be already riding strong grosses from “Spider-Man,” which opened May 3.
“There’s no harm in ‘Spider-Man’ doing big business because it really greases the skids,” says Dan Marks, VP at tracker ACNielsen EDI. “But of all the movies coming out, it’s ‘Attack of the Clones’ that can really stand on its own.”
Snyder notes that Fox’s other seasonal releases include Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” on June 21.
“We have a multitude of riches this summer,” he says. “But ‘Star Wars’ is the most unique franchise in the history of our business. Nothing matches this series for gross dollars and anticipation.”
(Carl DiOrio contributed to this report.)