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Is the phantom menace of hype overshadowing the art of cinema?

"SUPERB PIECE of hype - wish I'd thought of it." It was said lovingly and with a glint in the eye, but the publicist was only half-joking. Stanley Kubrick's death had, he said, done wonders for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Among his admirers, there is a heartfelt joke - a vain hope - that the great film-maker is actually in hiding, making a sequel to The Shining.

More than simply wishful thinking, it is perhaps a sign of the times that even a death - faked or otherwise - might be a legitimate ploy in the world of movie hype. Last night, the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, opened amid odds-on predictions that it would be the biggest grossing film of all time because of the hype, media manipulation and genuine excitement that surrounds it.

A few hours earlier, film critics sat down for the first British screening of Eyes Wide Shut. Already, regardless of what the critics say, that, too is assured of huge success. So how, when the pundits are talking in hundreds of millions of dollars, did the studios guarantee success before a single frame had been seen?

The media manipulation for Kubrick's film has been unprecedented. First of all, the filming was carried out in total secrecy. All those on set had to sign confidentiality clauses forbidding them to discuss the film. Then came the trickle of publicity that had the press fighting for scraps of information: that Cruise wears a dress in the film; that Kidman takes heroin and that the couple actually had sex in front of the cameras. None of which happen to be true.

The best publicity coup for the Kubrick film, short of the director's death, came when Warner Bros released a short trailer which starred Nicole Kidman's left nipple and buttocks. Not one national newspaper in Britain could resist reproducing clips of the trailer, with the tabloids and the Times devoting whole pages to the revealed nipple.

The hype for the film continued right up to the last second at the press screening yesterday. Critics were not given the usual production notes and synopsis and the Warner Bros staff at the screening were able to claim that it had beenKubrick's wish that critics not be informed of the plot before seeing the film.

The critics played an important part in the marketing strategy, with prolific cross-media promotion of both films. It was decided by Warner's publicists, PMK in Los Angeles, to hold back the film from all reviewers until the last minute - with the exception of Time magazine, part of the Time Warner media empire - which will ultimately take the profits from the film.

In the past, keeping critics away from a film has been a good way of squeezing a weekend's takings out of a "turkey" before bad reviews get into circulation.

"The media control is tighter than ever," said Stuart Kemp, news editor of Screen International. "The studios let information seep out when they want to. They choose journalists who they trust to do interviews with the stars and they control what they write.

"Some studios are now demanding that some interviewers only write positive things about their star. And some journalists are happy to comply.

"There is also some clever marketing on the Internet for the first time. Websites about films - particularly Star Wars - appeared in their hundreds. There have been rumours about some studios feeding stuff to some of them, but no one knows for sure."

One film publicist, who did not want to be named, said he believed "hundreds" of bad films had been dragged into profitability by marketing. However, Julia Short, who marketed Trainspotting, disagreed.

"To a certain extent, you feel in control until the day the film is released, but after that the public will decide," she said.

"You can try to interest critics and get things into the media, but the fastest communicator is word of mouth. If a film is simply bad, people will find out and won't go to see it."

The Star Wars hype has been less subtle and has relied more on the film's illustrious predecessors - and the might of the Murdoch empire, which owns the film studio Twentieth Century Fox.

One Sunday in May, The Sunday Times sold an extra 150,000 copies when it published a free magazine giving an exclusive behind the scenes look at the new Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace.

On top of such free publicity, all 61 Toys R Us stores in the UK have created special Star Wars zones, guarded by characters from the film, in which devotees can choose from more than 375 different products.

While promoting the film, merchandising will also provide a handy $2bn for the film's director George Lucas.

The Force Is

With Them

Number of words which have been written about the two films in newspapers over the past month:

Phantom Menace

The Independent 127

The Times 1,744

The Telegraph 3,503

The Guardian 2,010

The Mail 3,656

The Sun 3,338

The Mirror10,443

Tabloid 17,437

Broadsheet 7,384

TOTAL: 24,821

Eyes Wide Shut

The Independent 1,231

The Times 1,093

The Telegraph 2,109

The Guardian 789

The Mail 2,701

The Sun 852

The Mirror 920

Tabloid 4,473

Broadsheet 5,222

TOTAL 9,695