On Wednesday, expect empty office chairs, full theaters

According to one estimate, some 2.2 million full-time employees may

It's a tale of cinematic obsession and worker absenteeism.

Nearly half the work force takes off to see the biggest anticipated movie of the century. Employers lose hundreds of millions of dollars in wages. The gross domestic product falls 3 percent.

All right, not quite.

But don't look for too many "Star Wars" buffs at the office this Wednesday when the newest installment of the galactic epic hits theaters.

There are plenty of people like Adrienne Polley. The administrative assistant is taking off today, tomorrow, and Wednesday to camp outside the Uptown Theater in Washington to ensure a prime seat at the 10 a.m. showing of "Episode I - The Phantom Menace."

"My boss knows it means a lot to me," Ms. Polley laughs. "I'm having fun with it."

An estimated 2.2 million full-time employees (roughly the population of Utah) could skip work to see the movie May 19, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.

Assuming "The Phantom Menace" will attract at least 4.7 million moviegoers on opening day - matching the current Friday opening-day record set in 1997 by "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" - government data indicate that 46 percent will be full-time workers.

Here in Pasadena, Calif., a Jet Propulsion Lab employee waiting to buy his tickets outside the local theater admitted that he planned to play a little "Wookie Hookie" on Wednesday.

"I saw the first 'Star Wars' movie on opening day and I plan to see this one on opening day too," he says emphatically.

"I think half of JPL is here in line," calls out one woman.

Rather than fight the Force, many companies are joining in the fun - closing offices, renting out theaters, and giving away tickets.

Ric Edelman, head of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Va., is taking his entire staff of 90 employees to see "The Phantom Menace" Friday morning.

To get tickets, he had eight staff members (there's a limit of only 12 tickets per person) stand in line for six hours last Wednesday when seats went on sale.

He also showed each movie of the "Star Wars" trilogy in the office conference room last week after word got out that some employees had never seen the films.

(Oh yeah, employees came dressed as their favorite characters for the third showing. The boss went as the young Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

"I found it hard to believe that there was anybody in America who hadn't seen the movies," Mr. Edelman says. "So I immediately instituted a new company policy: As a prerequisite of working here, you have to see the films."

"I had to give everyone a chance to comply," he quips.

Jobtrak.com, an online job search company based in Los Angeles, put together a "Star Wars" trivia contest for its employees. The prize: two tickets to the show of your choice.

The questions aren't for the galactically challenged: In "Return of the Jedi," what ship was Admiral Ackbar located on?" (Answer: Home One.)

For some companies, like Shiney Entertainment, a video-game developer in Laguna Beach, Calif., seeing the movie is just like a field trip.

The president is sending the company's 35 employees to the theater on opening day.

"People assume we're going to take the day off anyway, so they might as well give it to us," says Daniel Chevalier, an artist at the company. "It's like a research project for us."

So what's the possible cost of those unscheduled absences? Challenger has crunched a few of those numbers, too.

Its findings: $293 million per day, based on the total average daily earnings of $133.20 for a full-time worker.

Economists say not to worry. Any dip in productivity will likely be offset by a boost in spending on tickets, toys, and all that popcorn.

Still, employers should consider themselves forewarned. Wholesale absenteeism could be an issue again in 2002 when "Episode II" is scheduled to hit the big screen.

"May the Force be with you."

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