''Episode 1'' breaks records, but could George Lucas' film have done better?

By Dave Karger
Updated June 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

As Darth Maul can tell you, double-headed lightsabers are cool — but they cut both ways. After months (or was it years?) of hype, The Phantom Menace finally arrived, hitting theaters May 19 with industry-shaking power. Thanks to tent-dwelling fanatics and round-the-clock showings, Phantom took in $28.5 million on its first day, breaking The Lost World‘s 1997 record of $26.1 million. Phantom continued barreling through the week: By Monday, it had tallied $105.7 million, the biggest five-day opening ever (old mark: Independence Day‘s $96.1 million). ”These numbers are humongous!” says Fox Domestic Film Group chief Tom Sherak. ”It’s a home run.”

Actually, it’s more like a ground-rule double. Despite Sherak’s cheerleading, most observers felt Menace‘s numbers were intriguingly middle-of-the-road. George Lucas’ opus didn’t break the most-revered box office record — highest three-day weekend gross. (Its $64.8 million fell short of World‘s $72 million.) And it did not come close to some experts’ predictions of $130 million and beyond. ”Clearly the first day wasn’t a disappointment,” says Merrill Lynch media analyst Stuart Rossmiller, ”but the weekend could’ve been a little higher.” Adds Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian, ”Everybody was saying $120 to $140 million for five days, and it just didn’t happen.”

In all fairness, many of those predictions — especially the ones in the $150-175 million range — were as over-the-top as Jar Jar’s antics. Given that the film was playing on an estimated 5,000 screens, and assuming that it played five times a day at midsize theaters of roughly 300 seats, a ticket price of $4.69 (the national average) would yield a maximum five-day gross of about $175 million. And that’s assuming sellouts for every show at every theater for nearly a week.

That exercise illustrates how unprecedented the expectations for Phantom were. (Could any other film have prompted discussions of upper limits for box office returns?) And that kind of outsize hype most likely hurt Menace. ”People were afraid,” says Dergarabedian. ”They thought: ‘It’s too crowded, I won’t get in. I’ll wait.”’ Admits Lucasfilm president Gordon Radley, ”We’ve heard a lot of people felt there weren’t tickets available.”

Another factor that put a damper on Phantom‘s coming-out party: exhibitor backlash. Lucas had procured unheard-of concessions from theater owners. Among the demands: Lucasfilm will receive 90 percent of the first- and second-week grosses (typically, studios take 70 percent), and exhibitors are required to book Menace for at least 12 weeks — in other words, the whole summer. Loews Cineplex Entertainment refused to play along with its New York City theaters, meaning that Menace didn’t play in some of Manhattan’s prime cinemas, including the Sony Lincoln Square, the most lucrative movie house in the nation. At an investment conference last week, Loews CEO Larry Ruisi noted: ”We play hardball. If you roll over on this, then we have to roll over for everybody else.” Radley counters, ”Look, it’s playing at the [1,200-seat] Ziegfeld, so it’s hardly lost in the Manhattan scheme of things.”