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'Star Wars' Triad an Unstoppable Global Force

March 11, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

George Lucas and 20th Century Fox, already basking in the unexpected mega-success of the "Star Wars" trilogy reissue, are about to bask a lot more. With next weekend's opening of the final film in the series, "Return of the Jedi," plus this month's re-release of the trilogy overseas, the 20-year-old franchise is expected to yield hundreds of millions of newfound dollars worldwide.

By the time the classic trio of movies has played out its run in the United States, industry experts estimate, the combined box-office take of "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Jedi" could easily exceed $300 million.

But that's only for starters.

There's good reason to believe that given the vitality of today's overseas market, which is far more potent than it was when the films debuted abroad, the trilogy's international re-release--beginning March 21--could equal or surpass its domestic performance.

In that case, the series would generate north of $600 million in worldwide theatrical box-office revenue.

Industry analysts believe that potential videocassette and new TV sales, along with the continued merchandising windfall, could yield hundreds of millions of additional dollars.

"The trilogy will generate a new billion dollars of income in all media and an additional billion in merchandising at retail," predicted one industry veteran.

Fox, which owns the rights to "Star Wars," and Lucas, who owns the film's ancillary rights plus all sequel and remake rights, each stand to make a fortune on the reissue. Fox will get the lion's share of box-office profit from "Star Wars," after recouping its marketing costs and distribution expenses, and Lucas will wind up with about 85% of the profit on "Empire" and "Jedi," after paying Fox a distribution fee, believed to be about 15%.

Yet both parties insist that money was never the issue--an otherworldly notion in a business as greedy as Hollywood.

"The money was not the motivation," said Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilm Ltd. "This wasn't done to generate huge box-office receipts, otherwise there might have been a different distribution strategy."

Tom Sherak, chairman of the 20th Century Fox domestic film group and the studio's point person for the re-release, said that from the outset, Lucas was very clear about his intentions.

"We could have made a lot more money, but we didn't want to deviate from what George wanted," said Sherak, acknowledging that "when you tell someone it wasn't about the money, they look at you like you're out of your mind."

Sherak said Lucas wanted the films presented "the way they should be," with restored prints, improved visual effects and better sound. Fox spent $10 million restoring "Star Wars" and Lucas about half that cleaning up "Empire" and "Jedi."

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The filmmaker's other concern was that entire families go to theaters to see the three movies in close succession to experience them as one story rather than three separate ones.

To that end, Fox devised a distribution strategy so "Star Wars" would play for three weeks before "Empire" was released. "Empire" would play for two weeks before "Jedi" was released. The plan was later modified to allow three weeks between each of the releases.

Had Fox staggered the release of the three movies over the entire year--let's say beginning with "Star Wars" in January, "Empire" this summer and "Jedi" at Christmas--it could have potentially milked millions more from each.

"Every time one of the films opens up, it competes with the others," Sherak said. "If we were in this for the money, why would we compete with ourselves?"

Lucas' fantasy, said Sherak, which looks like it will become a reality, is that all three movies would play on three screens simultaneously in the same multiplex.

Since "Star Wars" opened Jan. 31, it has grossed $130.6 million. Sources expect it to bring in an additional $15 million to $20 million before it leaves theaters. Last weekend, the film, still on 2,000 screens, grossed $3.9 million.

"Empire," which earned an additional $8 million this weekend on more than 2,100 screens, has grossed $51.7 million to date since its Feb. 21 release. Sources believe it too could attract an additional $15 million to $20 million, bringing its total to more than $70 million.

"Jedi," which previously grossed more than "Empire" domestically (though not internationally or worldwide), could outperform it again. Industry insiders predict the movie will open bigger than "Empire" at about $25 million and will ultimately do better because it's a more interesting story and it's more family-oriented because of the popular Ewoks--a tribe of friendly, furry, Munchkin-like creatures.

While the trilogy is raking it in on this side of the globe, in a galaxy far, far away, known as the international marketplace, the series is expected to achieve huge success in a universe that didn't exist when Lucas' brainchild first appeared on the Earth's surface 20 years ago.

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