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Jumping the Gun on 'Phantom Menace'

May 12, 1999|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

And the reviews are in.

But the film has yet to open.

What's going on here?

Call it a rewriting of protocol, as newspapers have been moving up their reviews of "Star Wars: Episode I the Phantom Menace" instead of running them Wednesday, when the film opens.

The New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Toronto Star published reviews on Sunday. Newsday will carry its assessment Thursday.

Except for isolated incidents--the Los Angeles Times went a few days early with reviews of "Dick Tracy" and "Godfather III" in 1990--no one can remember such a widening break in the wall that holds back newspaper reviews until the day of a film's release.

Indeed, 20th Century Fox, which is distributing George Lucas' $120-million spectacle, isn't pleased.

"I'm disappointed," Tom Sherak, chairman of the 20th Domestic Film Group, said on Tuesday (before learning of Newsday's plans). "I'm disappointed because these three supposedly respected news organizations have an understanding with the studios that they wouldn't do this."

Sherak explained that it's long been an accepted practice for Time and Newsweek to publish their reviews the same week as the trade publications Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. And all four are out this week with their "Phantom Menace" critiques.

However, Sherak added, newspaper reviews are "the culmination of a campaign." Fox and the other studios screen movies early for newspaper critics with the "unwritten trust" that those writers will bank their reviews for publication on the day the film opens.

At the New York Daily News, Sunday editor Edward Kosner said: "We felt that it's a news event more than a conventional movie." He added that the decision to publish critic Jack Mathews' 2 1/2-star review on Sunday was further driven by the Newsweek and Time critiques in this week's issues.

The two news weeklies also are a factor in Newsday's decision to run its review Thursday.

"While we generally honor opening dates, there seemed little point in holding back on our 'Star Wars' review, since the newsmagazines, Rolling Stone and even the New York Daily News were out far earlier than expected," said Phyllis Singer, Newsday's assistant managing editor responsible for entertainment coverage.

One paper that won't rush to judgment on the film, but will move a little quicker on its review timing is the Los Angeles Times. Kelly Scott, the Sunday Calendar editor who oversees movie coverage, said that the paper plans to run its review next Tuesday because the first public screenings of the movie are scheduled for 12:01 a.m. the following morning.

"Our feeling about moving a review early is that it's confusing to readers," Scott said. "They look for reviews close to the release date."

Others agree. "I'm shocked the [New York] Daily News ran its review Sunday," said Jeffrey Lyons, a veteran TV critic. "It's not fair to the movie, and it's not professional."

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Paul Colford's e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com.

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