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The Way Kubrick Would Have Wanted

Movies: Warner Bros. uses the late director's plan to market 'Eyes Wide Shut,' starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But will America buy it?

July 05, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The images, both sensual and mysterious, flash across the TV screen: Nicole Kidman unfastening an evening gown to reveal the curves of her naked back; a teenage Leelee Sobieski striking a pose in lingerie; a tormented Tom Cruise walking the streets of New York; a body lying in repose at the morgue; and the now familiar shot of Cruise, naked from the waist up, passionately kissing Kidman as she stares at herself in a mirror.

In two television spots, one accompanied by Chris Isaak singing "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" and another featuring pulsating piano music, Warner Bros. is cranking up its marketing campaign for "Eyes Wide Shut," Stanley Kubrick's final film.

Whether it's securing a cover of Time magazine, creating TV spots or even selecting the footage to offer show-biz programs such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood," the studio campaign is following the dictates of Kubrick. Though he died March 7 in his sleep in England, Kubrick continues to exert a powerful presence on key marketing decisions about his film.

"I think the whole idea from Stanley was to tantalize a little bit and a little bit and a little bit," said Nancy Kirkpatrick, the studio's spokeswoman for the film. "It's a smart strategy; so dramatic. A little bit gives you a lot."

To avid moviegoers, the film's July 16 debut will surely be one of the decade's most anxiously anticipated arrivals, one whose ideas and performances will be debated long after its outcome at the box office is decided. But inside the film industry, some believe the studio still faces hurdles because of the film's steamy subject matter, despite the inherent star appeal of Cruise and Kidman.

"I think they have a movie that is extremely adult, and they are stuck because they have one of the top stars in the world and have to be careful how they sell it," said one industry insider. "The only thing more taboo in this world than violence is sex."

Judging by the trailer and TV commercials, observers say "Eyes Wide Shut" has a '70s feel--though it's set in contemporary Manhattan--with a tone and sensibility very different than most mainstream Hollywood movies these days. Normally, a film like that would require careful nurturing and getting critics behind it so that when it opens in medium and smaller towns, moviegoers would already know what's coming.

But this is the late '90s, when star-driven movies are released on 2,000 to 3,000 screens and films live and die on their opening weekend. Besides, the studio--as per Kubrick's instructions--isn't screening the film for the press until a few days before it opens.

"Back when Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' was released, it was very much a small release and critically driven, and you got that key critic, like a Pauline Kael, and they helped sell the film," one source said. "Today, I'm sure they'll open this film on 2,500 screens. A Tom Cruise picture demands that. And it will play immediately in small towns across the country without critical weight behind it."

Another Kubrick film, "The Shining," opened on only 10 screens in 1980, grossing $622,337 over the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. By its fourth weekend, it had reached its widest run--752 screens.

What all this portends, say those who track box office, is that "Eyes Wide Shut" is something of a test case in marketing.

"They're in a '90s world whether they like it or not, and the demand will be to open this movie in excess of $20 million right off the bat," one source said. Anything lower, and it could be judged a failure before it has a chance to find its audience.

In marketing "Eyes Wide Shut," the studio is walking a tightrope--selling a sexually provocative, R-rated art film that happens to star two of the world's most recognizable actors while remaining true to Kubrick's vision. And as the steamy--and even kinky--nature of Kubrick's tale of jealousy and sexual obsession is revealed in public, the challenge faced by Warner Bros. becomes all the more evident.

Awareness High Among Moviegoers

Recent tracking shows that "Eyes Wide Shut" received a 78 awareness level--proof that moviegoers are definitely aware of the film--but it garnered only a 7 in the "first choice" category (double figures are desired), nowhere near the levels of this summer's big hits, such as "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Big Daddy."

"I don't think they need to make a gigantic splash because people know this movie is coming out," said Michael A. Vorhaus, managing director at Frank N. Magid Associates, a Los Angeles-based entertainment media and Internet research and consulting company. "Now, they have to convey enough of the story to get people who are borderline interested.

"This movie has had a tremendous amount of buzz for months and months, so you have a movie that, in my opinion, is going to open strongly. You're not going to have an 'Austin Powers' type of opening, but we are still looking at $20 million as a good opening."

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