Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace

Box Office Preview

By Gitesh Pandya

As May 19th inches ever so closer, theaters around the country are bracing themselves for what promises to be the biggest stampede of moviegoers in years with the release of Star Wars : The Phantom Menace. Directed by the lord of all Jedis, George Lucas, the prequel will be distributed by Twentieth Century Fox and is expected to dominate the early summer box office. But industry analysts and movie fans alike have been debating for some time how large a footprint will the new Star Wars film leave at the box office. The two most asked questions have been a) Will The Phantom Menace open with $100M or more and b) Can it gross more than Titanic to become the all-time box office champion?

The $100M figure has been tossed around because it is a flashy even number that suggests an astonishing debut record. However, ticket sales are not determined by flashy numbers. They are determined by mathematics, science, and consumer behavior. So then, how big can Episode I realistically open? Can any film, even this one, theoretically gross $100M over a three-day period? Unfortunately, it is still too early to calculate an accurate opening weekend forecast since there are too many variables that remain undetermined. Consumer demand to see The Phantom Menace is so high that the film is sure to come as close to selling out 100% of all North American seats that first weekend as is physically possible. But there will be certain constraints.

An important element in analyzing the opening weekend of Episode I lies in how it will be distributed. Normally, a megablockbuster launching in May 1999 would invade at least 3,300 theaters like Godzilla did last year. However, because Lucasfilm wants fans to get the best possible theatrical experience, Fox will distribute The Phantom Menace in theaters equipped with digital stereo sound systems leaving smaller and older auditoriums out of the loop. As of December, Tom Sherak, distribution president of Fox, stated that Menace would probably open in same range of theaters as the Star Wars Special Edition. That 1997 rerelease debuted in 2,104 locations. A recent Hollywood Reporter story estimated, however, that the number of playdates might even be around 2,500. Currently, Fox is expected to release The Phantom Menace in roughly 2,500 theaters and in about 4,000 total auditoriums with a maximum of three screens in any multiplex. This will create relative scarcity (when compared to initial demand) and should prolong the shelf life of the blockbuster.

Simple math would state that the wider the distribution, the bigger the grosses will be. What Fox and Lucas would like to avoid is the rapid erosion that the tentpole films from the last two Memorial Day weekends suffered. The Lost World and Godzilla opened as wide as possible with over 3,000 theaters and over 6,000 prints each soaking up as much business in the first weekend as possible. Both films achieved about 40% of their total domestic grosses during their four-day opening weekends which means they launched powerfully and then fizzled away quickly. By wisely limiting supply, Fox hopes to see more longevity. The exact number of theaters the studio books, and the number of auditoriums per theater, are the most vital elements in determining the opening weekend gross of the Star Wars prequel. Plus, with the opening date pushed up to Wednesday May 19th, the first weekend crowd will be diluted down to some extent over five days instead of three.

Another important factor will be the number of showtimes per day that theaters will offer. When big ticket summer films like The Lost World take over multiple screens in a multiplex, it is common to offer a screening as often as every 30 minutes. But what if for The Phantom Menace, theaters offer expanded hours of service? Normally, theaters have showtimes during half the day with the first shows beginning around noon and the final shows starting around midnight. With such intense demand on opening weekend for the prequel, some theaters may offer around-the-clock showtimes or at least extra shows in the morning and late at night. With more screenings per day, it would be like expanding a three-day weekend into four or five days worth of showtimes thereby boosting the weekend gross. If enough theaters are able to do this, it could very well send the opening gross through the roof.

If there is any other motion picture to compare the new Star Wars prequel to it would be The Lost World which holds the record for the largest opening weekend gross ever. The Steven Spielberg blockbuster grossed $92.7M over the long Memorial Day weekend in 1997 including Thursday night previews. Over the Friday-to-Monday period it earned $90.2M and over the traditional Friday-to-Sunday portion it chomped on $72.1M while playing in a massive 3,281 theaters. The Lost World's only commercial advantages over Menace would be its higher theatercount and the fact that its Sunday was followed by a holiday allowing the day to attract higher Saturday-like sales. Episode I, on the other hand, is showing stronger interest from consumers, will benefit from higher ticket prices, and should appeal to a wider age group since the dinosequel was scorned as being too dark and scary for younger children. These factors should allow Menace, though in fewer theaters, to exceed The Lost World's Friday-to-Sunday opening figure.

OK, so depending on how wide and how often The Phantom Menace plays, its opening weekend gross could be $80M, $90M, or even $100M. But how long will it last and where will it end up after all is said and done? The quality of the picture is always a major factor as proven by last year's Godzilla. With all the hype leading up to its release, the updated monster flick seemed destined for $200M+ in domestic sales until fans got to see the movie and were largely disappointed. George Lucas' reputation, however, leads most to believe that the actual final product will be very entertaining and enjoyable enough for repeated viewing. Episode I has so much momentum going into its release that it is likely to cross the $100M, $200M, and $300M levels in record time.

But after that, the film's commercial potential will stand its toughest test. Repeat business and crossover appeal are the keys to monster box office hits. Star Wars fans a generation ago went over and over again to see the original trilogy. Chances are today's fans will do the same to some extent. But Menace's appeal is heavily slanted towards males which will probably not give it the incredibly long-lasting legs that Titanic had. The important matter will be how many fans will still be going to see Star Wars in weeks 13, 14, 15, and on. Titanic was still the number one movie in the land during those weeks and grossing over $15M per weekend at that late point. Episode I will have much stiffer competition to deal with as all the top summer films will enter the marketplace week after week drawing away the attention of moviegoers. After seeing the prequel a couple of times, mainstream film patrons will want to move on and see Austin Powers 2, Adam Sandler's Big Daddy, Wild, Wild West, Tarzan, Notting Hill with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, and Eyes Wide Shut among others. While Star Wars : The Phantom Menace is likely to become one of the biggest box office titans of all time, it does not look likely that it will have the crossover appeal and staying power to break Titanic's $601M domestic record. Even its worldwide record of $1.84 billion looks to remain unharmed.

With the ShoWest exhibitors convention concluded in Las Vegas, theater operators now have a better idea of what to expect this summer from the tentpole picture Star Wars : The Phantom Menace. The massive turnout will be good for the entire business as those sold out of the prequel may opt to stay for another picture boosting the sales of competitors. Those hoping to pick up some of the excess Star Wars traffic include Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, and The Thirteenth Floor from Sony. Then of course there are the counterprogramming titles aiming to lure women uninterested in Anakin and company like A Midsummer Night's Dream and DreamWorks' The Love Letter which is currently set to bow day and date with Menace. More release date juggling is expected as it is every year but there are definitely ways for competing studios to avoid the Star Wars steamroller and rake in some cash from all the hysteria.

And so the road to premiere day lies ahead. Twentieth Century Fox has the crown jewel of the 1999 box office in its hands. Since fans will be buying tickets in advance to avoid being sold out, it is actually possible that the studio will know about how big Star Wars : The Phantom Menace will open even before its first show that Friday morning since most of the available seats will have been snapped up by then. But remember, aside from tracking all the box office records that are sure to be smashed this summer, George Lucas just wants moviegoers to sit back and have fun with his film.

For more information on The Phantom Menace, visit the official Star Wars Web Site which now features the new theatrical trailer and one-sheet poster.

Written : March 11, 1999 Home

1999 Box Office Guru