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'Sith' Goes Forth, And Comes In First

By Bridget Byrne
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, May 23, 2005

"It's an international record, a domestic record, and we also set the intergalactic record I believe. I can't find the old one, but I know we set it," exclaimed Bruce Snyder.

As excited as any Jedi fan, Snyder, president of distribution for 20th Century Fox, was announcing the out-of-this world grosses for "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" which earned a record $158.5 million over its opening four days.

From its premiere Thursday at 12:01 a.m., box office records fell to the force of the sixth and final installment of George Lucas's intergalactic saga. The movie broke records for two-day, three-day and four-day totals. "Sith" is also estimated to trump any previous five-day tally.

Of course, the movie -- which provides the crucial link between the two "Star Wars" trilogies -- had the box office pretty much to itself; other studios chose not to schedule wide releases last week to compete with the 9,400 prints sent out by Fox. Still, the numbers, from the box office tracking service Exhibitor Relations, were impressive. Just for the midnight show at 2,900 theaters, the movie took in $16.5 million. That was more than double the $8 million seized by "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," the third and final part of the Hobbit saga, when it opened at midnight at 2,100 sites in 2003.

By the end of the day Thursday, after expanding to 3,661 sites, "Sith" was up to $50 million. That was way ahead of the $40.4 million opening-day record netted last year by "Spider-Man 2" and it easily beats the one-day intake of green achieved by "Shrek 2," which earned $44.8 million in its first Saturday last summer.

"Sith's" four-day total beat the previous record of $134.3 million set by "The Matrix Reloaded" in May 2003. But for the Friday-to-Sunday weekend, the total gross for the PG-13-rated "Sith" was $108.5 million, an estimate that will have to hold firm if it's going to beat the PG-rated "Shrek 2's" $108 million opening weekend. Even then, it would be only No. 2 on the weekend record list: The first "Spider-Man" took in $114.8 million Friday through Sunday in 2002.

Worldwide, the gross is estimated to be $303.2 million (that's counting most release territories with the exception of Japan and Korea).

Domestically, Friday's demographics showed an audience that was 58 percent male, and 48 percent under age 25.

Much has changed since the first "Star Wars" took the industry by surprise in the summer of 1977, when Fox slipped it into just 43 theaters and it earned $1.6 million in its first weekend. Since then, it's taken in $461 million domestically and $798 million worldwide; the domestic total, which includes a 1997 rerelease, is the highest for any "Star Wars" film (the worldwide "Star Wars" record, $922.8 million, is held by the 1999 "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace").

Not just the fortunes of Fox but also those of the movie industry were felt to be riding of the backs of Jedi appeal. After 12 straight weeks of diminished revenues compared with the same period last year, gloom-and-doom stories about the industry's fate had made headlines. Early Thursday -- when box office figures for "Star Wars" were still only an educated guess (but a guess made easier by the $50 million in pre-ordered tickets sold before the the film hit theaters) -- John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, decried the negative stories and predicted a big change a few days hence: "Everyone will write stories next Monday about how the business is back, and that's funny to us because we know it's cyclical. We know it goes down and we know it goes back up."

But even with "Sith," it turned out to be the 13th down weekend in a row. Though "Sith" helped propel the combined weekend gross of the top 12 movies to $156 million -- up 65.1 percent over the previous weekend -- that's still down 4.4 percent over this time last year, when "Shrek 2" was dominating theaters and other movies like "Van Helsing" and "Mean Girls" were holding more strongly than this year's also-ran crop. In the wake of "Sith," "Monster-in-Law" fell 38 percent, "Kicking and Screaming" dipped 48 percent, and "Kingdom of Heaven" tumbled 65 percent compared with last weekend. "It is disconcerting to have 13 down weeks, especially with 'Star Wars' opening so huge, but one film cannot turn everything around overnight."

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