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In a Theater Near, Near to You...

Though the 'Star Wars' prequel looks to have a lock on success, the year holds much more: from the long-awaited 'Eyes Wide Shut' to the return of Austin Powers. And is there another 'Something About Mary' in store?

January 17, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

OK, moviegoers, welcome to 1999 the prequel, if you will, to the millennium.

Over the next 12 months, major Hollywood studios and small independents will release hundreds of films into the U.S. marketplace. Some will be gems; most will be rhinestones. But looking ahead, this year's big story will be the arrival of just one film: George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace."

The first chapter in the storied "Star Wars" saga follows a young Anakin Skywalker--the father of Luke and Princess Leia--and how he became the evil, black-masked Darth Vader. The new episode, or "prequel" to the previous trilogy, will debut May 21 and, if Internet buzz among sci-fi dweebs is any indication, it should be the monster hit of the year.

"I think everyone feels very strongly that this is going to be a huge-grossing film," said Chan Wood, executive vice president and head film buyer at Pacific Theaters in Los Angeles. "In my estimation, it probably is the only film that has any chance at all of unseating [all-time box-office king] 'Titanic.' "

Wary that the film could be crippled by media-fueled expectations, executives at 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilms are already trying to prevent the hoopla from getting out of control. Unlike last year's "Godzilla" from Sony, which did well but didn't open as big as most people expected, the distributors of "Star Wars" say you won't see every billboard in America touting the film, and they won't book every theater screen available when the movie opens.

"You can book every theater and say, 'OK, we'll set the opening-day record,' but honestly, who cares?" said Fox studio chief Bill Mechanic.

"I know Lucas and the people at Lucasfilms think that consumers feel these movies are sledgehammered over your heads so by the time they come out you're not interested in them," Mechanic added. "It's time to do it a different way. I think you are seeing overkill marketing. It becomes a game of winners and losers and not whether it's a good movie or not a good movie."

Looking beyond "Star Wars," however, Hollywood is offering an eclectic slate of movies in 1999 that already are fueling speculation.

On July 16, Warner Bros. will release one of the most talked-about movies of the decade--Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." For the past two years, Kubrick has been laboring in secret in England on the film, which stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Only the actors and a few of Kubrick's inner circle know what the film really depicts.

Also this summer, Adam Sandler tries for the triple crown--following his two huge '98 hits, "The Wedding Singer" and "The Waterboy"--with the release of "Big Daddy," in which the comedian portrays a temporary dad. Get ready for the bed-wetting jokes, America.

Here are some questions that are sure to be answered in 1999:

Can Claire Danes hack it as an action star in "The Mod Squad"?

Can Paul Thomas Anderson, the young director who achieved critical acclaim for his take on the porn industry in "Boogie Nights," catch lightning in a bottle again with his next film, "Magnolia"?

Can the Farrelly brothers, who had the surprise hit of 1998 with "There's Something About Mary," strike it rich again with "Me, Myself and Irene," a hoped-for Christmas release about a woman who falls in love with both sides of a schizophrenic?

Can Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, in their first film together since "Pretty Woman," reclaim their on-screen chemistry in "The Runaway Bride"?

Will Warner Bros., a studio that seems to have lost its hit-making formula, find success over the Fourth of July holiday when it releases the big-budget action film "Wild Wild West," starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline?

Will Hollywood, which has historically glamorized smoking in its films, face the wrath of tobacco companies when director Michael Mann's still-untitled project about a man who blows the whistle on the tobacco industry hits the big screen later this year?

Is the world really waiting for a movie about the late offbeat comedian Andy Kaufman, even one starring a star as big as Jim Carrey in "Man on the Moon?"

Will teenage girls rush to theaters at year's end to see Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Beach," a story of a young man in search of the perfect place to find himself?

So, as we peek into the crystal ball to see what lies ahead for the bigger studio movies in 1999, be forewarned: Take plenty of popcorn and keep your eyes wide shut.

NOTABLE RETURNS: They're back!--Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, the Muppets and Richard Nixon.

Cruise hasn't been seen on the big screen since "Jerry Maguire," which opened in December 1996. Now, the actor will return in three films: Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," Anderson's "Magnolia" and John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II."

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