'Phantom Menace' flies again in 3-D

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Like a remastered album by Hootie & the Blowfish, the 3-D rerelease of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" would seem to appeal to only hard-core fans. But even if you don't own a Jar Jar Binks action figure, there's a reason to keep an eye on this film.

Though Disney recently released "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" in 3-D, "The Phantom Menace," which arrived in theaters Friday, marks the first time a studio has converted an old, summer-style blockbuster into 3-D. How the movie fares with ticket buyers could decide whether we see more examples in the near future.

Originally released by 20th Century Fox in 1999, "The Phantom Menace" is expected to earn about $19 million this weekend and about $60 million overall, says Phil Contrino, editor of the industry-tracking website Boxoffice.com. But he admits that's a guess. "We're heading into new territory," he says. "It could come out of the gates really hard. Or, it could totally underperform."

Audiences and the movie industry alike are still embracing 3-D, but cautiously. James Cameron's 3-D version of 1997's "Titanic" (in theaters April 6) will likely be a major success, but Martin Scorsese's 3-D bonanza "Hugo" has earned only about $61 million since its Nov. 23 release, even less than the 2-D movie "The Muppets," which came out the same day. Warner Bros. is making a bold bet with December's 3-D period drama "The Great Gatsby," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but Lionsgate is releasing its hugely hyped sci-fi fantasy "The Hunger Games" -- seemingly a prime candidate for the black glasses -- in plain old 2-D on March 23.

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Perhaps wary of the spotty track record for movies that have been hastily converted to 3-D -- remember 2010's "Clash of the Titans"? -- Fox is emphasizing in publicity materials that "The Phantom Menace" was painstakingly reworked in a process that began well over a year ago. (All the same, New York critics were not shown the film in advance.)

Whether the results are good, bad or middling, 3-D seems likely to become the format for all films eventually, says Contrino. "To say it won't happen is like betting against sound, or betting against color," he says. "Historically speaking, it's never smart to bet against new technology."

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