A long time ago, in movie theaters very near most of our homes, a film opened and took the country -- if not the whole world -- by storm. Two sequels followed, and they also ruled the universal box office.
But the creator of those films didn't release another "new" installment in the series for more than a decade-and-a-half, and eventually fans had to make up their own stories just to quench their thirsts for more adventures.As the years passed, the Master finally decided to return to the universe he had created. And the movie-going public nearly went nuts with anticipation. . . .
The Master is, of course, George Lucas, and the movies are his "Star Wars" films.
On the off chance that somehow you may not have heard, there's a new "Star Wars" film opening next week (Wednesday, May 19, to be precise) -- the first of the prequels, "The Phantom Menace."
To say that "Phantom Menace" mania has swept the country would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Just look at how nuts things have gotten:
"Midnight madness" toy and merchandise sales at national stores nearly led to fistfights, as collectors and fans snapped up action figures, vehicles and playsets. (Celebrity filmmakers, like Penny Marshall, Ron Howard and Kevin Smith, were spotted among those hearty souls braving the May 3 toy sale kick-offs.)
Fans in some cities (including New York and Los Angeles) have been camping for more than a month outside theaters just to get tickets to the first screenings of the film.
The studio distributing "The Phantom Menace," 20th Century Fox, has stamped serial numbers on passes for pre-opening exhibitor and critics screenings -- in an effort to crack down on pass counterfeiters and restrict the number of people at the showings. Studio representatives also claim they are planning to destroy the prints following the screenings. And exhibitors and other VIPs who saw the first of the screenings last week were mobbed by journalists trying to get their reactions to the film.
Press kits, the bundle of biographical information and production notes and photos sent to journalists assigned to write about the movie, are fetching at least three figures on the Internet.
Fans crashed servers and systems galore trying to download the first trailer for the film off Internet sites last fall. And a lot of them paid full price just to watch those trailers on the big screen.
Novelized and comic-book adaptations of "The Phantom Menace" are flying off the shelves -- even if customers are afraid to read them and spoil some of the surprises.
Nearly every national magazine, from entertainment-related publications, popular music-based magazines and even some trade publications not centered on the entertainment industry, has featured "The Phantom Menace" on its cover.
Larger businesses around the country are preparing for " 'The Phantom Menace' Flu," an expected flood of suspicious sick-outs from employees who are planning to see the movie on opening day.
With "Star Wars" mania running at a fever pitch, how can the film possibly match the hype? Even Lucas has said that it can't, and some of the film's biggest supporters agree.
"If you're expecting it be better than 'Star Wars,' you're going to be disappointed -- I mean, come on, how could you top 'Star Wars?' " asked Jon Bray, owner of Dr. Volt's Comic Connection, a professed "Star Warrior."
Kerry Jackson, host of the "Radio From Hell" morning program on X-96 (KXRK-FM), another longtime devotee of the "Star Wars" films, agrees.
"So many people have built this up so big in their minds that they're going to be disappointed," he said. "You'd think this was the Second Coming by the way they're reacting."
Still, both men admit they'll be in line to see the movie -- on opening day, if possible.
"Are you kidding?" Jackson asked. "This is an event. You don't want to miss out on something this big. It's a good time to be a movie geek."
However, a group besides Lucas, Fox and the fans is really rooting for the film's success, namely theater owners. Many of them have sacrificed their summers for "The Phantom Menace."
As part of the contract to get the film, theaters have agreed to show "The Phantom Menace" on their biggest screens for a minimum of six weeks. They also had to meet minimum sound system and projection standards to be in the first wave of theaters receiving the film on May 19. (A second wave of theaters will receive prints of the film on June 18.)
"There are a lot of people with a lot to lose if this doesn't do as well as they're predicting," said Dave Sharp, a film-buying agent for several independent cinema chains in Utah, Nevada and Colorado.
But Sharp, who was one of the lucky few to attend the Salt Lake exhibitors screening on May 6, is predicting big box-office grosses for the movie.
"It's huge. It's going to be a monster, no doubt about it," he said. "There are so many people excited to see this picture."
Perhaps more importantly, Sharp said the film "delivers the goods."
"It's well-paced, the music is terrific and the effects are terrific. And it has a great story," he said. "That's pretty much everything you're looking for in a movie, isn't it? It's got thrills and it really moves. You won't be bored with this one."
However, he's not sure it will overtake the current box-office champ, "Titanic," which grossed more than $400 million in the United States during its theatrical run, and which has grossed at least $1 billion worldwide, thanks to its home-video release.
"That's a whole lot of money, and there are a lot of movies out there this summer," said Sharp, who has booked the film into some of his theaters. "And it's got a lot of competition for its dollars. There are some very exciting movies out there."
Also, some critics have pointed out that fans already know what happens to a lot of the characters in the film -- since it is a prequel to the "Second Trilogy" of films, "Star Wars" (a k a, "A New Hope"), "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."
Many fans find that comforting, though.
"We may know what happens to them in the end, but before that it's all an open book. They might as well be brand-new characters," Jackson said.
"It's kind of nice to be able to see what happened to Anakin (Skywalker) when he was a small child," Sharp agreed. "I don't know about you, but I'm interested in seeing who he was before he crossed over to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader -- and before he fathered Luke and Leia."