Truth is definitely stranger than fiction — even when the fiction involves a seven-foot, gun-toting space ape named Chewie. The proof could be seen last week as thousands of moviegoers, many of them channeling the Force, lined up once again to see Star Wars. ”There’s a fine line between fan and fanatic,” said Joshua Cordes, 21, who waited outside Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre on opening night dressed as Luke Skywalker and waving a plastic lightsaber, ”and I crossed that line a long time ago.”
By Monday morning, Cordes (who was only a year old when Wars first premiered in 1977) and his fellow War-riors had given George Lucas’ newly enhanced sci-fi classic the biggest January weekend opening ever: $35.9 million. ”We knew it was going to open, but nobody knew how it was going to open,” says an ecstatic Tom Sherak, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Domestic Film Group. ”Now we’re all like kids in a candy store.”
Of course, the only ones indulging their sweet tooth are Fox executives. Wars’ phenomenal showing means that it (and its soon-to-be-rereleased sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) will likely rule the box office through March, throwing a serious monkey wrench into the schedules of rival studios. Universal, in particular, has to be concerned, considering it has an estimated $115 million invested in the lava-fest Dante’s Peak, which opens Feb. 7. Peak is now clearly in danger of losing its own event potential and will probably open light-years behind Wars, also the likely fate of Sony’s Absolute Power (also Feb. 7) and Disney’s That Darn Cat (Feb. 14).
And there will be other consequences of the Wars aftermath. ”You’re going to see a lot of older pictures brought back in big campaigns,” says Tom Pollock, chairman of the American Film Institute and former head of Universal Pictures. Paramount has already booked The Godfather for a limited rerelease March 21; and this fall, Columbia will send another sci-fi hit from 1977, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, back to the multiplexes. Says Columbia’s head of distribution, Jeff Blake, ”Certainly Star Wars does make you pretty bullish.”
Speaking of Spielberg, with Wars now certain to overtake E.T. as the top-grossing film of all time (see chart), speculation has already begun that the competitive DreamWorks chief, and close Lucas pal, may rerelease his 1982 extraterrestrial smash. But according to Spielberg’s spokesman Marvin Levy, there are no immediate plans for E.T. to reappear. And even if it did, there’s little chance of duplicating the Wars phenomenon. Says Levy: ”It’s a different film. They’re not going to yell at the screen when he says, ‘E.T. phone home.”’
Of course, the biggest winner of this newfound Force frenzy — other than Lucas — is Fox, the studio that bankrolled the film the first time around. With the success of the rerelease’s marketing campaign, Fox has got a running start at winning the distribution rights to the Wars prequels — what Levy calls ”the brass ring” — due from Lucas beginning in the summer of 1999. ”My guess is now it’s theirs to lose,” says one movie executive. Even Spielberg’s DreamWorks, which many once thought had the inside track for the prequels, has to be reeling.
Well, at least Spielberg can still say he’s got the top-grossing film in history. For a few more days.
(Additional reporting by Gregg Kilday and David Poland)