Feature:Star Wars flu

By AL SWANSON   |   May 14, 2002 at 12:13 PM

CHICAGO, May 14 (UPI) -- A Massachusetts high-tech company is giving its employees a paid holiday on Thursday to see "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones."

It's not like the fifth movie in the Star Wars saga needs more pre-release hype, but Seth Miller, founder of Miller Systems Inc., last month declared a company holiday May 16 and plans to take his entire 18-person staff to the AMC Fenway 13 Theater in Boston for the 12:30 p.m. show.

"I think everybody is going," said Miller, 31, who was 6 when the original "Star Wars" (Episode IV: A New Hope) premiered in 1977.

"It's mandatory if you want the day off," he said. "We're all a bunch of geeks."

The oldest of Miller's employees is 45 and they all grew up Star Wars fans. Miller still is upset with his mother for tossing out his Star Wars collectibles from the attic.

His Web development and IT firm survived the industry downturn and Miller said he's not worried about lost productivity. When the group spends a couple of hours together in a galaxy, far, far, away, workers will be reachable via cell phone or pagers set on "vibrate" in case of emergency.

"It's definitely business first," he told United Press International. "We did this three years ago (when the company had 10 or 11 employees), and it worked out OK." Miller estimated the "holiday" would cost a few thousand dollars but said "once every few years" was not a problem.

Filmmaker George Lucas has not announced any Star Wars sequels beyond Episode III, which begins shooting next year.

Bootleg copies of Episode II began showing up on the Internet last week posted on Usenet and Web discussion groups. CNet News.com reported the video and sound quality of the clips it downloaded were good, but the images were dark and murky in full screen.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert said the same thing after he saw the movie on the big screen. Ebert recommends true Star Wars fanatics search out one of a handful of theaters equipped to show the movie in digital projection. The film was shot in digital video and transferred to film.

Lucasfilm probably anticipated some piracy and director George Lucas is not pleased. Lucas said the bootlegs will cost the film money since the real profit will come with the release of the DVD. There's no doubt demand will be there. After all, several hundred fans were willing to spend $500 a ticket last weekend to attend charity sneak previews in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.

"Action-packed," "star-studded" and "great" were typical capsule reviews. Of course, anyone willing to spend more than $7 to see a movie is a diehard and some of the early filmgoers wore Jedi Knight robes or dressed in Imperial Storm Trooper armor.

John Challenger, head of the international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, estimates up to 5.7 million people will see the movie Thursday, opening day for the general public.

Since nearly half the first-day viewers hold full-time jobs, Challenger estimated Star Wars flu could cost the U.S. economy $319 million in unscheduled time off.

Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace drew 5.7 million moviegoers on opening day in 1999, according to the Exhibit Relations Co. The picture made $431 million in the U.S. -- $915 million worldwide -- the fourth-highest grossing movie after "Titanic," "Star Wars" and "E.T."

"It is probably not a coincidence that the cities having the most box office success throughout the release of the last film were those with large concentrations of workers in high-tech industries," Challenger said. "Theaters in these cities are likely to do brisk business again but possibly at the expense of workplace productivity."

Challenger noted loyal fans have been anticipating Episode II's release for years, even though some were disappointed with Episode I. Two publicity-seeking fans have been camping outside a Seattle cinema since January.

"The positive impact of the movie opening -- increased consumer spending on movie tickets and refreshments, as well as increased foreign and domestic tourism and business in shops and restaurants near the movie theaters -- could be offset by a spike in absenteeism and subsequent decrease in output," Challenger said.

There always a dark side, I guess. But as Darth Vader learned, if you can't beat the Force, you may as well trust it.

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