Lucas, Fox Set High Standards for Showing Phantom Menace

If you want to be the first on your block to see Star Wars: Episode I---The Phantom Menace, you'd better get in line soon---if you can figure out which theater is going to show the film. Theater allocations for the long-awaited May 19 debut hadn't been decided as of last week, but exhibitors eagerly agreed to some strict requirements for running the film. One restriction---that no tickets be pre-sold---will thwart ticket scalpers and deprive ticket agencies of sizable fees.

Financed and produced by director George Lucas, the film is being distributed by 20th Century Fox. Lucas wishes to ensure the best possible experience for every Star Wars fan, and at his request, Fox is requiring that theater owners meet a list of unusually stringent conditions if they wish to run The Phantom Menace. And who wouldn't want to run it? Phantom could outperform last year's Titanic, the industry's all-time top money earner.

Lucas' conditions state that Phantom can be shown only in screening rooms equipped with digital surround-sound equipment. Exemptions are being granted only to communities without such theaters, where it will be played on traditional systems. One print per screen is the rule: no sharing allowed. Running one print in two adjacent screening rooms will bring down the wrath of Fox and its army of lawyers. Trailers will be limited to eight minutes, only 2.5 minutes of which will be for other Fox films. Ads for anything other than movies will not be permitted. Multiplexes are being asked to run the film only on their best screens and to run it continuously throughout the two-month debut period.

Theaters who don't adhere to the guidelines could lose the right to show the film, or they might have to pay hefty fines for violating the exhibitor's contract. Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc., told the Associated Press, "There are often conditions put on theaters, but this is pretty unusual . . . Fox feels that with this type of product, they can make these demands, and the exhibitors will agree to them." Exhibitor Relations Co. provides release schedules and tracks box-office statistics for US theaters.

Despite Lucas' success---and the millions of dollars in revenue expected to come pouring in from Phantom spin-offs---Lucas has a reputation for being pretty much a regular guy. In Marin County, California, home of Lucasfilm and Skywalker Ranch, Lucas can sometimes be spotted pushing his own basket around the local supermarket or standing in line at the theater.

The Phantom Menace isn't scheduled to open in England until later in the summer. According to National Public Radio's Marketplace business-news program, an enterprising London travel agency has decided to take advantage of the delay by booking Phantom Menace tours to New York City. The package will include round-trip airfare, hotel accommodations, and all the expected amenities---except tickets to the film. For those, the British fans must stand in line like everyone else. The New York Times ran a contrary report Friday April 9 stating that LucasFilm and Fox have assured some theater owners with existing contracts allowing them to sell advance tickets that they might be able to do so for the Star Wars feature.