ON TUESDAY, MAY 18, DEVOTEES OF THE CINEMA'S most successful franchise ever will begin to line up around the block to be the first in the door of the Cinerama at one minute past midnight. Meanwhile, several hundred of us will be lying contentedly in our beds, neither envious nor dismissive of these fanatics. You see, we have already seen Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Yes, and we have seen the entire thing: all two hours and five minutes, with THX sound, on a 40-foot-wide screen. What's more, we didn't have to spend $500 or $1,000 on charity tickets, we didn't have to wait in line, and we were able to bring many friends from where we work.

If you own a cinema in Washington state, you can see any film up to two months before the rest of the world, for FREE, in a secret little "trade screening," offered to theater owners because of an obscure state law. Even though America loves monopolies, occasionally the government has to kill a sacrificial lamb and instigate an anti-trust law to quell the meatheaded masses. Such is the case with Washington's "anti-blind bidding" law for motion picture exhibition.

After significant lobbying in the '70s and '80s (much of it by former Grand Illusion owners Randy Findley and Paul Doyle), a law was created stipulating that exhibitors must be able to view films prior to bidding on them, in order to ensure competitive exhibiting contracts. The law was meant to keep the big chains from hogging all the lucrative films through blind bidding (offering money for an unseen film) and personal connections.

With this law firmly in mind, the newest owners of the Grand Illusion began negotiating for a bid on Star Wars: Episode I in September. Our bid: $5 million, and 99 percent of the box office, to be the sole Seattle exhibitor of the film. Our one stipulation: We had to see the film first, to "make sure it has legs." We pleaded and cajoled and finally got our tickets, which looked like normal tickets except that, in special invisible ink only visible under a blacklight, they said "Lucasfilm, Ltd."

So yes, we saw the film, but we retracted our bid. It's an okay film, but we don't think it "has legs," as we say in the industry. Still, it was a great show, with lots of special effects and exciting sound. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say this: Watch for the Trackball™ racket hanging in little Anakin Skywalker's room.

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