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AT THE MOVIES : WORD OF MOUTH

Limited exposure

Publicizing a film can be tricky when its star becomes news.

March 20, 2008|John Horn and Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writers

The show business adage that "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is probably true about 99% of the time. But as the media -- and its consumers -- grow obsessively focused on the personal struggles of Hollywood stars, there are rare instances when even a little free exposure can be problematic.

On Friday, Paramount Pictures will release "Drillbit Taylor," a new comedy starring Owen Wilson as a bodyguard hired by several high school students looking for bully protection. The film has been accompanied by most of the marketing efforts typically associated with a national theatrical release -- including television promotions and coming attractions previews -- but you can look far and wide and not find Wilson conducting the kind of interviews that stars of his caliber usually do when they have a big movie to promote.

The intentional choice not to sit Wilson down with television reporters, print journalists and talk show hosts is understandable. The studio worried that rather than let Wilson plug the movie and its comic pedigree ("Drillbit Taylor" was produced by "Knocked Up's" Judd Apatow), his interviewers would steer the conversation toward the 39-year-old actor's hospitalization last summer following an apparent suicide attempt. (The actor has yet to address the incident in the mainstream media.)

So rather than put Wilson together with television or print reporters, Paramount had the actor record "Drillbit"-themed introductions to Fox's Sunday-night prime-time lineup, with Wilson appearing in front of "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy" and "Unhitched." Paramount said Wilson has done all that the studio has asked of him, and his publicist said the actor's availability was affected by "Marley & Me," an upcoming movie Wilson is currently shooting in Florida.

In some ways, the film doesn't really need Wilson's publicity help. Although the actor has a following among older, well-read filmgoers (his credits include "Meet the Parents," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Wedding Crashers"), "Drillbit Taylor" is aimed at pre-pubescent boys, many of whom aren't setting their TiVos for "Late Show With David Letterman" and are not reading this or other newspapers. The interviews Wilson didn't give, in other words, weren't really missed.

But that hasn't always been the case with Wilson or other actors who for personal reasons either weren't able to publicize their films or faced uncomfortable inquiries when they fielded journalists' questions.

Fox Searchlight was on the verge of releasing Wilson's "The Darjeeling Limited" last fall when he was hospitalized. (In an unfortunate coincidence, Wilson's character in the film had attempted suicide.) Within a few days, he had withdrawn from the DreamWorks film "Tropic Thunder" and was later replaced by Matthew McConaughey. Fox Searchlight initially considered postponing the opening of "Darjeeling Limited," but felt the actor's struggles would still be a topic of media conversation.

At the time, Wilson's publicist issued a statement for the actor: "I respectfully ask that the media allow me to receive care and heal in private during this difficult time."

Wilson, who appeared opposite Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody in the film, subsequently showed up for "The Darjeeling Limited's" Los Angeles premiere, but he did not appear at its screenings at the New York Film Festival or the Venice Film Festival. When Wilson, who studio executives say has never been eager to do publicity, could not attend the film's press junket, Searchlight canceled the media event, worried it would spend some $250,000 to have Schwartzman and Brody do little more than field queries about their costar.

During the late summer press tour for "The Darjeeling Limited," Wilson's condition was addressed sparingly. "I can tell you he has been doing very well; he has been making us laugh," the film's director and co-writer, Wes Anderson, said at a Venice, Italy, news conference about the film. "When he is ready, he's going to speak for himself much better than any of us could."

Unlike Paramount's extensive marketing effort for "Drillbit," Fox Searchlight depends on publicity to boost most of its theatrical release campaigns. With little free media (and good but not gushing reviews) for "The Darjeeling Limited," the film came and went quickly, grossing just $11.9 million domestically and slightly more overseas.

Disney chose a different strategy with December 2006's Mel Gibson movie "Apocalypto," whose release came on the heels of the actor-filmmaker's notorious anti-Semitic arrest rant. While some people inside Disney wanted to keep Gibson out of sight, others felt he had to go out and promote the movie -- which, after all, wasn't in English (it was in Yucatec, a Mayan dialect) and whose biggest star was Rudy Youngblood. Although Gibson and CNN's Anderson Cooper famously didn't quite hit it off, the filmmaker was able to talk about his movie more than might have been expected.

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