NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Call it the force to be reckoned with.

The movie that is expected to be the second-biggest moneymaker of all time (second only to "Titanic") is scheduled to hit theaters in a couple of months, and theater owners are feverishly working out the financial terms under which they will show "Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace."

Issues being negotiated between theater owners and 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm Ltd. (the movie's distributor and producer) include which theaters will receive the movie, how many screens will show it, how many prints will be distributed and most importantly, what the revenue split will be.

Executives both at Fox and Lucasfilm declined to comment on financial terms, which they say will be determined in late April or early May, once the film is screened for exhibitors.

A few details did surface at the recent ShoWest conference in Las Vegas, where "Star Wars" creator George Lucas said he is looking to play the movie at state-of-the-art theaters that are outfitted with digital sound systems. About 2,000 of the nation's 7,418 theaters fit that description, according to Beverly Hills-based Reel Source, a box-office tracking firm.

"When we released our special edition (of the original 'Star Wars') two years ago, we looked for theaters with a big presentation and digital sound. That's the way to hear and see the movie. Now, we have a template out. With the new movie, we'll try to follow that template," said Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox's domestic film group.

Typically, distribution deals between studios and theater owners stipulate a percentage of box-office revenues that will be divided between the two entities. Studios typically get 70 percent to 80 percent of the box-office gross and theater owners keep the rest.

Highly anticipated movies command bigger stakes for studios. Sony Pictures Entertainment pushed for a 90/10 split on its "Godzilla" release last year, but ended up settling for 80/20. The film brought in only $132.6 million, a far cry from the $250 million that some had projected. Films that have reached the coveted 90/10 level include "Men in Black" and "Independence Day."

Those splits are only maintained for the opening weeks. Later, the split is adjusted to give theater owners greater incentive to continue playing the feature.

"I'm sure the terms will be 90/10," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source. "Could the stakes go further to 95/5? I can't see it for this film. That's asking a lot. Maybe for the next one in the summer of 2001."

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