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Disney’s careful planning; U.K. toons into Oscar

THIS REF NEEDS AN UMPIRE: With the type of attention Denis Leary received for Touchstone’s “The Ref,” one might have expected the Second Box Office Coming by Monday. While the offbeat comedy weighed in with a respectable $ 4,343 average, it was surprising that “Ref” went out with a modest launch of 701 playdates.

While Disney execs say their strategy will pay off, others aren’t so sure.

“Nobody can figure out what Disney is doing with their pictures,” said a rival studio marketing exec. “They’re in another business from the rest of us.”

By current standards, 700 theaters is limboland. It’s great if you have a specialized drama such as “Schindler’s List.” But “The Ref” was positioned as a popular comedy and a kind of mainstream intro to Leary as someone who could carry a picture.

A week ago, the Disney org debuted the difficult-to-peg comedy-drama “Angie” in 800 sites and added about 360 dates this weekend. The idea was to create a critical and audience buzz. The new picture isn’t review-driven.

Add in that the cost to open in 700 or 1,200 locales isn’t much different. There’s an additional amount for prints, but national ad buys will run the same kind of money. Perhaps it’s another $ 1 million expense and perhaps it would have only increased the gross $ 1.3 million.

“There are a lot of things that need to be weighed. If you were only to go after top locations, what you’re looking at is about 1,200 screens,” said Warner Bros. distribution chief Barry Reardon. “Then you start to figure out the economics of taking secondary screens.” Reardon noted that the promotional boost that comes from an orchestrated national break can more than compensate for the additional print costs.

Reardon launched the company’s current marketing challenge, the bizarre “The Hudsucker Proxy,” in five situations. He reckons that if its strategized correctly, the upscale black comedy could peak at 800 screens.

“But haven’t you heard, Disney has a new policy. It won’t do more than 700- 800 dates on anything but its most high-profile titles,” said another studio marketing chief.

Well, if it is a policy, the folks at Buena Vista were unaware of it. A studio spokeswoman said it’s business as usual: Every release is handled on its individual merit. Is the company infallible? Well, no one can make such a claim — the balance sheet is the ultimate arbiter.

“Disney said it was best to concentrate urban with a hip comedy,” said “Ref” co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “And looking at the weekend figures, there’s no question that’s where it played best.”

RULE BRITANNIA: It’s bad enough that American chauvinism takes a beating almost every year in Oscar’s acting categories. This year things have gotten worse, with a complete shutout in animation. Despite total disarray for tooners in Eastern Europe — which usually seems to snare a nomination or two — the Academy scorecard in the category reads U.K. 4, Canada 1, U.S. 0. Ouch!

Nick Park, a past animation Oscar winner, just might add to his trophy chest on Monday with “Wrong Trousers.” His particular wizardry is Claymation and, while he’s about 300 titles behind Mickey Mouse, his half-hour nominee again features the exceedingly benign Wallace and his sometime faithful dog, Gromit.

Park repeats the oft-heard refrain, “You can’t truly imagine what an Oscar does for you.” The most obvious impact since winning one in 1991 for “Creature Comforts” has been more money from British television, a hugely successful Wallace and Gromit Christmas TV special and talk of a feature.

“I don’t have a great business head, but the latest spinoff into merchandising is really exciting,” he admitted. “In a small way, there have been things like T-shirts, but the big push should happen in September. There’s going to be a series of books, and ‘bendy’ and ‘windy’ toys. The idea is to concentrate on quality stuff like watches rather than lunch pails.”

I’M YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE: Savoy has the latest spin in R.L. Stevenson territory with “Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde” prepping for a May start in Toronto. The Tim John/Oliver Butcher script for producer Ray Stark contemporizes the ultimate split personality saga in which the new Jekyll (named Richard Jacks here) is a brilliant chemist reduced to creating perfume scents.

When he successfully duplicates Jekyll’s experiment, there’s an interesting switch in that his alter ego is the consummately evil Helen Hyde. You can imagine what devilish fun she’s up to in the comically leaning version. There’s nothing she won’t stoop to when it comes to eroding the security of Jacks’ job or the stability of his current relationship.

Director David Price is closing a deal for Tim Daly to star as the ’90s Jekyll, so you have a pretty good idea of what a nice guy he’s going to be. Hyde is something else. It’s hard to imagine an actress with a more polar persona — and the deal’s inked — than Sean Young.

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