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U.S. theaters won't get shorter 'Hamlet'

To be or not to be … four hours?

That was the question faced by the folks at Sony and Castle Rock for its 70mm “Hamlet,” directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, and set to debut Christmas day. The answer was “to be,” but with the understanding that a shorter, more traditional movie-length version would also be available in the marketplace. Still, despite reports to the contrary, there are no plans for a domestic theatrical release of the shorter cut, which will run between 125 and 140 minutes.

“There’s been a lot of confusion on the issue of different versions, and we’ve been partly to blame,” said Castle Rock Pictures president Martin Shafer. “Long before a release strategy was planned, it was decided that there were ways to employ and exploit a shorter version. Ken (Branagh) was confident he could do a good abbreviated cut of the picture. It’s still not quite completed.”

Shafer said the key to making the film was that no prior movie version had employed the full text. What was impossible to discern in advance was whether theater operators would be keen to take runs of a four-hour version.

“There’s no question that exhibitors want the full version and nothing else,” said Sony Releasing president Jeff Blake. “The picture will play in 70mm wherever possible and in all instances it will be the integral version. Based on this response, I can’t imagine anyone who would want anything else.”

“Hamlet” opens on an exclusive basis Dec. 25 in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Its second wave of exclusives adds 16 cities on Jan. 24 and a third wave, comprised of 34 cities, kicks in Feb. 14. Blake said that expansion, based on performance, will also take place in February.

“The picture’s strongest selling points are its integrity and epic sweep,” noted Landmark Theatres senior VP Bert Manzari. “Months ago we advised against screening a shorter version. It would be a publicity nightmare to screen less than the full version to any movie critic.” Landmark is hoping to exhibit the picture in several locations, including San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass.

As for the fate of the abridged “Hamlet,” Shafer could only speculate. He said it was still possible that some town could ask for the truncated version or that it might be a sale condition in a smaller territory overseas. Other prospects involve certain television outlets and, of course, shorter distance flights such as Los Angeles-Chicago where an unexpurgated dour Dane would necessitate an additional hour circling O’Hare.

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