Leave it to George Lucas to make the home-video release of "The Phantom Menace" an event worthy of international hype.
The top-grossing film of 1999, with a worldwide haul of more than $920 million, will hit stores around the globe during the week of April 3, Fox announced today. The U.S. release date is April 4. (That's a Tuesday. Plan accordingly.)
Given the ambitious international release strategy, the studio is in hyperbole overdrive.
"This is going to be the week of 'Star Wars: Episode I' on video around the world," said Steve Feldstein, a spokesman for Fox Home Entertainment.
It's also going to be an Easter hit, at least according to Fox, which passed up the lucrative Christmas 1999 shopping season to lie in wait for April 2000.
"Easter is a trade high-traffic shopping season, and by releasing it in the springtime, we were also able to make it global, which is cool because fans of the franchise, old and new, will have [the video] at the same time," Feldstein said.
Fox is not the first distributor to attempt a coordinated worldwide video launch -- Dreamworks did it with "The Prince of Egypt" -- but the other releases were spread out over several months. "The Phantom Menace" video will debut around the world within a matter of days, Feldstein said.
"We've been able to marshal forces and release it within the week in all territories we do business in around the world, which is just about everywhere," Feldstein said.
Uh, what does "just about everywhere" mean? Pretty much, everywhere -- except France. It won't be released there until the fall. (Just what the French need -- another reason to carp about America.)
While the home-video release effort is massive, all remains quiet on the DVD front. Plans call for the flick to be issued only on VHS videotape in the United States. (In some Asian countries, it'll also come out on laserdisc and VCD, a video CD.)
In these parts, the "Star Wars" saga has never been a friend to DVD collectors. Not one of the films from the original trilogy has yet been issued in the format. And word is fans may have to wait until director George Lucas' new prequel trilogy is completed before any of them see state-of-the-art DVD releases with all the extras.
"George would love to do something special with the DVD release, but he won't do it until he has time to concentrate on it," said Lynne Hale, a spokeswoman for Lucasfilms Ltd.
"Right now he's writing the script for 'Episode II,' then we go right into principal photography this summer in Australia. And after that, he'll be working on 'Episode III,' so it could be some time before he's able to devote the time needed to work on the DVD," Hale said.
Last May, when "Phantom Menace" was released theatrically, it was reported that 20th Century Fox received only a distribution fee from Lucasfilms and none of the box-office grosses. (Lucas funded the entire production himself, with no studio money). Fox and Lucasfilms officials would not comment today on whether a similar arrangement had been struck for the distribution of the video revenue.
Jar Jar Binks bending to the P.C. police? Don't hold your breath. As casting for the second installment of the new "Star Wars" trilogy continues, Lucasfilm is refuting reports that had George Lucas is seeking a more culturally diverse cast in response to accusations of racist stereotyping in "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace".
The original Daily Variety article, published last Wednesday, said the new, politically correct roles would include "a Native American character, said to have a forceful, spiritual nature; an Indian or Hispanic character; and an Asian character, possibly trained in martial arts."
But in a post on the official 'Star Wars' (www.starwars.com) Web site, Lynne Hale, Lucasfilm's director of communications, labels the Variety report "completely false," saying that no character descriptions have been decided on since Lucas is still working on the script.
"The descriptions reported would never be appropriate for a 'Star Wars' film," Hale writes in the message. "'Star Wars' movies have always been populated with a rich cast of characters that make up this fantasy world."
Currently the only role casting directing Robin Gurland is holding auditions for is that of Anakin Skywalker.
Names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and James Van Der Beek have been tossed around -- rather jokingly -- as possible candidates for the future Darth Vader, as have lesser-known names like Jonathan Jackson. But despite the "inside" claims that one blondish actor or another has the edge, Lucas' camp is saying it's all baloney.
"Robin [Gurland] has seen 700 tapes and submissions and met with 300 candidates," says Hale on the site. "She does not have a short list yet and is still exploring many possibilities. I know there have been many reports of actors saying that they have met with George Lucas and have done readings for him, or are the number one choice for Anakin. These are false rumors (but fun to read!)."
Recently rumored to be leading the race is 26-year-old Paul Walker, a little old to be romancing Natalie Portman, we think, especially since her Queen Amidala character looked considerably older than Jake Lloyd's Anakin in "Episode I." But Walker's a veteran of teen films "She's All That" and "Varsity Blues," and according to a source close to his family, he interviewed with Lucas and is the No. 1 choice for the part so far.
"Paul has another movie role in the works that might damper scheduling for 'Episode II,' but Lucas assured him that they could work something out," the source said.
Another name added to the pot is Eric Christian Olsen, of Fox's "Get Real". The college-age Olsen reportedly came to Lucas' attention when he guest-starred on NBC's "ER" as a severely burned patient. Olsen confirmed to IGN Movies that he was "stoked" at meeting Lucas at Skywalker Ranch to discuss the part.
"We'll see what's up, man. I'm stoked. Even no matter what, man, I still get to meet [George Lucas]," Olsen gushed to IGN.
Judging from his vernacular, dude, we've got, like, a bad feeling about this.
LEO'S 'PLUM' DEAL: It's the picture Leonardo DiCaprio would rather forget, but "Don's Plum," an underground movie shot in 1996 starring DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, has been bought by Danish director Lars Von Trier's production company. Von Trier's Zentropa has bought the international sales rights to the film, meaning it'll be released everywhere but North America.
'DUETS' LOSES BACKUP: Gwyneth Paltrow's karaoke film "Duets" is being shopped around to other studios after Disney decided to remove it from its release schedule, the Hollywood Reporter says. The film, directed by Gwyneth's father Bruce Paltrow, was in the can and scheduled to open May 5. But Disney is reportedly removing "Duets," which follows characters across the country to a karaoke competition in Nebraska, due to its "violent content." Which leaves us wondering what on earth could be violent about a movie in which people sing off-key tunes to a Muzak-style accompaniment. Death by microphone-cord strangulation? Barroom brawls over another rendition of "Hey Jude"?
SANTA MONICA, Calif., Feb. 9, 2000 -- Jar Jar Binks, that Gungan cross between Eeyore and Bob Marley, upset a lot of people last summer.
It wasn't just that he was annoying (he was) or stupid (ditto), but that he was (or so some naysayers charged) an intergalactic Stepin Fetchit -- a thinly veiled black stereotype who played the goof while Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and all the other white guys saved the galaxy.
Well, guess who's coming to dinner?
Word comes today that George Lucas, creator and master of the "Star Wars" universe, has taken the complaints of ethnic exclusion in "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace" to heart, and he's going to add some color to his (mostly) white-bread fantasy universe.
According to a report in today's Daily Variety, Lucas -- currently at work on the script for "Episode 2," the second installment in the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy -- is taking pains to make sure the next film is stocked with more racially diverse (read: politically correct) characters.
Even though Lucas's screenplay isn't finished, Lucasfilm Ltd. casting director Robin Gurland has already met with major talent agencies to mine actors for several roles, including an American Indian with "a forceful, spiritual nature," an Indian and/or Hispanic character and an Asian "possibly trained in martial arts," according to the trade newspaper.
Lucasfilm reps didn't immediately return Hollywood.com's request for a comment. But the report suggests quite a turnabout for Lucasfilm, which initially rejected the charges of racism that spread like wildfire over the Internet and in the media when the film was released in May.
"Nothing in 'Star Wars' was racially motivated," Lucasfilm's Lynne Hale told the Dallas Morning News last year. "'Star Wars' is a fantasy movie. I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had a direct reference to the world today is absurd."
As for the criticism that Jar Jar is a grating presence, Hale said: "It's a children's movie. Kids love him. He's so childish."
While the "yousa"-spewing Jar Jar was the butt of most of the PC criticism directed at "Phantom Menace," other "Phantom Menace" animated characters also were taken to task for perceived nods to Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian stereotypes.
Similar gripes were raised after the release of the original "Star Wars" in 1977. That film was populated with white heroes such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. When the sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" came out in 1980, the situation was remedied somewhat with Billy Dee Williams cast as Lando Calrissian.
By the way, Lucas has already said that Jar Jar will be back in "Episode 2."
DARTH MAUL OUTDUELS DINOS: The hubbub over sci-fi stereotypes, meanwhile, certainly didn't dissuade moviegoers from seeing "The Phantom Menace," either here or abroad. In fact, the film has now officially usurped "Jurassic Park" to become the world's second-highest-grossing movie of all time, trailing only "Titanic."
Though it's still oceans away from catching "Titanic," which has grossed $1.8 billion, "The Phantom Menace" seized the No. 2 all-time rank by taking in $922.5 million (and counting). It has now surpassed an impressive list of box-office champs. "Jurassic Park," down to No. 3 on the all-time list, has grossed $920 million; "Independence Day" is the fourth-highest-grossing film with $811.4 million; and the original "Star Wars" remains the fifth-highest-grossing movie (thanks in large part to its 1997 re-release) with $775.8 million.