Goldwyn sets to-do for ‘Ado’

Are American masses ready to brush up their Shakespeare? The Samuel Goldwyn Co. hopes so.

The company said Tuesday that it has planned a late-summer blitz for between 300 and 700 screens for director Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in abid to deliver what few film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work have delivered before — booming box office.

“We survived the ‘Jurassic’ onslaught,” said Richard Bornstein, Samuel Goldwyn Co. veepee of worldwide marketing, adding that the pic will widen from 147 screens to roughly 200 screens over the July 4 weekend. “And we survived ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ — $ 17 million was a hell of an opening. When everything has played out (this summer), then we’ll go wide with ‘Much Ado.’ ”

But big bucks from the Bard is not as easy as it sounds. Just as Shakespeare’s name brings people in, so too does it drive some away.

Beyond Paramount’s 1968 release of director Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and, arguably, Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet,” there haven’t been any runaway movie hits culled from Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

There are at least two previous versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” including one by Irving Thalberg in 1936, a pair of “Macbeth” adaptations from directors Orson Welles and Roman Polanski and two cracks at “Hamlet” — Laurence Olivier’s 1948 pic the best known. While the list of Shakespeare movies is lengthy, the overall record is punctuated by boring efforts or financial failures or both.

“Much Ado” already ranks as an exception. The Goldwyn pic has delivered outstanding returns so far –$ 7.9 million in 52 days of release — by successfully delivering a crossover audience for the movie. To date, the company has spent an estimated $ 2 million on prints and advertising on “Much Ado.”

“The fact that it is doing better than other Shakespeare (movies) like this (is) because this isn’t like any other Shakespeare title,” said Seth Willenson, a producer/independent film marketing consultant, adding that “there’s always room in the summer for good counter-programming.”

The toughest task lies ahead for Goldwyn, as the company widens release of the movie to America’s heartland and attempts to draw more teenagers and young adults to pic. Goldwyn is expected to drill on stars Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton and Robert Sean Leonard and the freshness of Branagh’s directorial vision.

“There’s a thing about the movie business called chemistry,” said Willenson, who added that from the beginning it was recognized in the independent arena that Branagh’s cast would be able to “open a classic entertainment movie”– even Shakespeare.

But sustaining the box office returns was dependent on the entertainment value of the movie, which has proven up to snuff. In fact, Goldwyn is currently mulling the possibility of purchasing network TV buys to add a glitzy spin to the classic comedy. Bornstein said a decision will be made in the next few weeks.

Another challenge facing Goldwyn will be to keep the picture in the public eye and hold screens through a barrage of such summer movies as “The Firm, “”Rising Sun” and “The Fugitive” and high-brow competitors in the fall, including Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” Warner Bros.’ “M. Butterfly” and Columbia’s “The Remains of the Day” and “Age of Innocence.”

Exhibitor Relations Co. president John Krier said that Goldwyn may be in the catbird seat for a late August blitz of “Much Ado.”

“The way the fall looks like right now, there aren’t many sure-fire hits in the fall season,” Krier said. “It could be a problem period because it looks thinner than hell, and at least Goldwyn knows what it has to sell.”

In fact, Goldwyn believes it is selling a megahit by independent standards. The pic has set house records at numerous theaters, while hammering home consistent grosses since its debut in New York on May 7.

“We’re not selling it as a Shakespeare film,” Bornstein said. “We already know that we have a hit. It’s just a question of how long it will run.”

After seven weeks on comparable screens, “Much Ado” is tracking ahead of last year’s Sony Pictures Classics hit “Howards End” and Miramax Films’ “The Crying Game.” The projected box office gross for the film falls in the $ 30 million-$ 40 million range.

“There are two rallying cries at the company these days,” Bornstein said. “Last week, we started to tag our advertisements by asking people if they’ve had enough of dinosaurs and muscle men. Now, we’re calling it the original romantic comedy.’

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