The crowd wasn’t typical for a midweek movie matinee. The patrons emerging from the 10 a.m. Tuesday showing of Meet Joe Black at the Union Square Theatre complex in Manhattan were a mostly male mix of the young, the unemployed, and the AWOL from work. To a person, however, they were unabashed in their enthusiasm. ”Amazing!” gushed one filmgoer in his late 20s. ”Godlike! The Bible has nothing on this.” Summed up 26-year-old Chris Bergoch of New York City: ”I was blown away.”
Rabid Brad Pitt fans? Not quite. On Nov. 17, Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm premiered the trailer for Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace on 302 selected screens in 73 cities across the country. The carefully orchestrated one-day publicity stunt — which, announced on the Lucasfilm Web page only four days earlier, came as something of a surprise — quickly developed into a major film-industry event. Die-hard fans nationwide lined up to get into theaters showing the trailer. TV news crews and print reporters descended on local movie houses eager to document the cinematic feeding frenzy. And exhibitors reported increased overall business as a result of Wars-hungry crowds. ”You’ve heard of appointment TV?” asks Terry Press, head of marketing for DreamWorks. ”I think this is probably the first case of an appointment trailer.”
All this for a two-minute teaser? Sure, if those two minutes represent the first original footage from a new Star Wars film in more than 15 years (actually, 5,655 days, going back to the 1983 premiere of Return of the Jedi — but who’s counting?). ”Many of us have been waiting over half of our lives for this movie,” says Carl Cunningham, webmaster of fan site. Cunningham managed to post several stills from the trailer on his site Tuesday morning — and was promptly overwhelmed with hits as enthusiasts tried to access his page. The trailer ”sent fans into a tizzy, because years of speculation finally came to fruition,” he says.
For its part, Fox knew it had the Force on its side. The question was, How and when to debut it? Originally, Fox and Lucasfilm had agreed to release the trailer nationally on Friday, Nov. 20, attaching it to a wide range of films — most notably the high-profile premiere of the Will Smith-Gene Hackman thriller Enemy of the State. ”People are going to the movies right now,” explains Tom Sherak, chairman of the Fox Domestic Film Group. ”This was a good way to get to a lot of people in a short period of time.”