The first "Star Wars" prequel will have a "limited" opening

Last month, Jedi overlord George Lucas quietly announced, via his website, that the official release date for “Star Wars: Episode I” would be May 21, 1999. No surprise there — for some months now, Hollywood has been working under the assumption that the prequel would land somewhere around the Memorial Day weekend. But intriguingly, Lucas also added that the heavily anticipated film would not have the “widest possible release,” but rather would open only in “quality” theaters. “I’m not trying to break any records,” said Lucas. “I’m interested in quality presentation, and a positive group experience for everyone who comes to see this film.”

That is a surprise, given the escalating release patterns for event films of late. In fact, conventional wisdom would suggest that the prequel was a cinch to open in at least a Godzilla-size 3,700 theaters. Analysts were also expecting “Episode I” to become the first film to break the magical $100 million mark in its first weekend. Now, says a Twentieth Century Fox source, expect a more modest debut, akin to the 2,104 theaters that ran the “Star Wars” rerelease last winter. That would allow Lucas to open the film only in houses equipped with state-of-the-art screening and sound systems.

Lucas “was talking about theater quality,” says Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox’s Domestic Film Group. “We’ll be looking to play the best of the best.” Of course, 2,000-plus theaters is no art-house opening. “How limited is limited?” asks Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “It will break records no matter what, because they’ll fill every seat. The demand for this film will far outweigh supply.”