The publicity machine for "Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace" stepped up a gear this week.
Only parents who have spent the last few weeks on Mars didn't realize that the $8 they laid out for their kids to see "Wing Commander" last weekend was actually paid to see the hugely anticipated 2-1/2-minute "Star Wars" publicity trailer that ran before the film. The trailer followed one released a few weeks ago and added more information about the story's plot and characters.
At one suburban theater in Los Angeles, the moment the clip finished, and before the feature film began, a loud voice from the back stated the obvious: "OK, we can all go now."
"The new characters are great," said 12-year-old Adam Cochran, emerging from the screening of the new trailer. Eight-year-old Daniel agreed, asking, "Isn't it the biggest thing ever?"
And that's just the trailer. The film itself doesn't open until May 19.
This new "prequel," which takes place before the events depicted in the original 1977 film "Star Wars," is expected to be a box-office smash ("bigger than 'Titanic!' " crowed theater owners at last week's ShoWest trade convention in Las Vegas), push new technical standards for projection, sound, and distribution, and become a merchandising monster.
"This is the dawn of a new age of digital cameras and delivery," announced filmmaker George Lucas to theater owners at ShoWest, eagerly awaiting their first glimpse of the new trailer.
The creator of the "Star Wars" franchise intends to push the arrival of that new technology by releasing a digital version of the film to be shown in four specially outfitted theaters in Los Angeles and New York June 18. The movie, which was shot on film, will be remastered digitally for the select run. Lucas has said he intends to shoot the next two "Star Wars" installments completely in digital format.
In addition, the film marks the debut of Surround EX, an enhanced sound system that is a collaboration between Lucasfilm and Dolby. According to Patrick Artiaga of Dolby Laboratories, it involves a third speaker system at the rear of the theater that will "let the train run right over you, back to front."
Some 2,500 American theaters already are equipped with the new sound system. Dolby hopes that the arrival of "Phantom Menace" will speed the outfitting of more theaters.
Unlike a new film, the appeal of the "Star Wars" franchise is well-known. "We're telling every advertiser, 'If you want to reach everybody on the globe, this is the film,'" says Bill McGlamery, president of Cinema Screen Media, which places ads in theaters.
Tie-in products read like a Who's Who of toymakers, including Hasbro (several new toys based on characters and vehicles in the new film), Lego (new building-blocks sets), and Nintendo (new video games for Nintendo 64 and Gameboy).
Then there's the Internet. Millions of fans downloaded the new trailer over the weekend. "Star Wars" sites that have operated for years rehashing the old "Star Wars" movies now are abuzz with talk about the new characters and plotline.
Lucasfilm's official Web site www.starwars.com (available in seven languages) provides regular updates, as well as behind-the-scenes features and an online store. There are dozens more worldwide, including (www.thephantommenace.co.uk), a British site that provides travel-to-America information to those who can't wait for the movie to come to their country.
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