A 'Menace' swoops toward theaters

A business outplacement firm has predicted that "employers may be faced with the most widespread planned absenteeism in United States history, costing nearly $300 million in a single day in lost wages" on May 19.

Why? Because that's the day the new "Star Wars" film, "Episode I - The Phantom Menace," opens around the country. The calculation assumes that some 2.2 million people will duck out of work that day to see a "prequel" that intends to show how the "Star Wars" saga all began.

So. batten down the hatches for a flood of "Phantom" publicity over the next 40 days and 40 nights. Already, reclusive director George Lucas has come out of hiding and talked about not only "Phantom Menace" but his personal life on CBS's "60 Minutes."

Meanwhile, the movie has been on the cover of magazines from "Vanity Fair" to "Entertainment Weekly." Fox, who'll distribute it, has announced that advance ticket sales won't be allowed during the first two weeks of screenings to prevent ticket scalping. (Of course, that will likely result in long ticket lines outside theaters ... which then will produce further stories about the film ... and so on.)

"Phantom Menace" is expected to notch some technical firsts, too. For the first time a "synthespian," a digitally created actor, will have a prominent role in a film. He's called Jar Jar Binks, and he'll be up there emoting right next to "real" actors like Liam Neeson. And in June an all-digital version of the film will be shown for the first time in four theaters (see "Is That All Folks?" to the right).

Mr. Lucas's company, Industrial Light & Magic, has 450 artists creating these computer-generated characters, compared with just four artists 10 years ago, a company official told the AP.

So far, no one connected with the film is talking about surpassing "Titanic" as the all-time box-office hit. But topping $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales has been mentioned. And it's clear that the whole schedule of summer movie releases is being planned around "the Phantom factor" - trying to stay out of the way of a hyperdrive hit.

"I'm sure that 'Star Wars' will be the biggest thing this summer, but it better not be the only thing. There are a lot of other screens to fill, and no one is going to be able to accommodate everything," a senior executive at United Artists theaters told Variety this week.

Still, at least one theater executive is predicting that it might be "the biggest June ever" for movies. Among those the industry has high hopes for are: "Austin Powers 2," the spy-spoof sequel; "South Park," based on the animated TV series; and "Tarzan," the latest Disney feature-length cartoon.

I'm looking forward to "The Wild Wild West," based on the classic TV series, which will star Will Smith and Kevin Kline. It's expected to dominate the July 4 weekend box office and start summer off with a bang.

*Send your comments on Arts & Leisure to entertainment@csps.com

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