Hollywood pitches in on war effort

Studios plan tactics for issue-driven films

Within the next few months, Hollywood studios will launch several movies that take a sober and thoughtful look at the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

So Hollywood presumably will have done its civic duty. But two key questions: Is the audience ready to embrace these films? And how should the studios go about selling them?

Par Vantage’s “A Mighty Heart” was a smart, emotional and well-crafted look at the Middle East situation, but its wide release and low per-screen average delivered a harsh reality check to all the studios.

The slew of upcoming current-events movies (see chart) have a variety of styles (actioner, star vehicle, satire, etc.) And, of course, their marketing strategies are also all over the map.

The two common themes about the studios’ marketing strategies: Don’t try to hide the subject matter, and tailor the campaign to the film. (Par Vantage execs admit they were wrong to open “Heart” in wide release, concentrating on Angelina Jolie’s star power, rather than acknowledging the film’s delicate subject matter.)

The tide may have turned against the war, but that doesn’t mean moviegoers want to see films about it or related topics — especially when the real thing is on CNN around the clock.

Hollywood studios cranked out a slew of war-themed dramas during WWII and several political-themed pics in the 1970s, but the current events craze is fairly new, fueled by the success of pics like “Babel,” “Syriana” “The Constant Gardener” and “Hotel Rwanda.”

And another factor is that these are passion projects of filmmakers, and studio execs want to keep them happy.

Universal production prexy Donna Langley concedes that it’s “always a challenge getting people to come to movies and see things they are trying to escape,” but says as a studio Universal tries to support filmmakers who want to make these type of films.

When “Bourne” steward Paul Greengrass wanted to make “United 93,” the studio overcame reservations about how receptive moviegoers would be to the re-creation of the 9/11 tragedy.

He is now adapting “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” a book about chaos surrounding the fall of Baghdad, for the studio.

U also has the third “Bourne” movie, bowing Aug. 3, which is basically an adrenalin-charged actioner, but one with political undertones.

At the very least, current-events films require financial jurisprudence.

New Line prexy of marketing Russell Schwartz says the studio made sure to keep costs down for “Rendition,” about the U.S. government’s detaining and torturing of terror suspects. He noted that Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal reduced their fees to keep the budget under $30 million.

He admits the fusillade of war movies hitting screens is a concern. The studio is still fine-tuning its strategy, but plans a mid-October bow to avoid the competish.

“We wanted to get ours out sooner, rather than later,” Schwartz says. “I don’t envision it a platform, and I don’t envision opening it on 3,000” screens.

Three smaller war-related pics will also vie for attention: Paul Haggis’ Warner Independent pic “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron; “Grace Is Gone,” a Weinstein Co. drama starring John Cusack as a soldier who must tell his kids their mom died on duty in Iraq; and “The Kite Runner,” a Paramount Vantage adaptation of the bestseller about an emigre’s return to Afghanistan. “In the Valley of Elah” is about a soldier who disappears after returning from Iraq.

UA, meanwhile, is bullish on Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” a $35 million movie starring Redford as an anti-war professor whose students end up fighting in Afghanistan. The pic also stars Tom Cruise as a pro-Iraq war senator who tries to convince journo Meryl Streep to support his views.

UA’s prexy of marketing Dennis Rice maintains that moviegoers will want to see the movie because the story is compelling, first and foremost, and because it stars three of the biggest stars.

“I feel we have so much to work with,” Rice says.

Universal will launch two war-related pics. “The Kingdom,” an action-charged pic about FBI agents who investigate a bombing of an American facility in the Middle East, stars Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner. Originally slated for earlier this year, the $70 million movie was pushed back to a September bow.

Mike Nichols is taking a more absurdist take in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” an adaptation of George Crile’s book about a congressman’s covert dealings with rebels in Afghanistan in 1980. It stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and is due Dec. 25.

Stars, of course, will help. But audiences sometimes need distance from the subject. The slew of terrific Vietnam films came after the end of the war, when audiences knew the outcome of America’s involvement. The public seemed to need time before it could enter a period of introspection.

“Many of the best films made about war have come out after the wars have ended,” says Irwin Winkler, citing “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Coming Home” and “Platoon,” among others. “People need a period of time to reflect on them.”

Winkler, who wrote and directed last year’s Iraq-themed “Home of the Brave,” continues, “I don’t know that there’s a real stomach for films dealing with current events. Audiences are certainly flocking to films with fantasy elements — whether it’s ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Transformers’ or ‘Spider-Man,’ they’re all big successes.”

While Universal’s “United 93” and Par’s “World Trade Center” met with the studios’ carefully calibrated expectations, other current-events pics like “Jarhead,” “Home of the Brave” and Jonathan Demme’s updated “Manchurian Candidate” were not exactly box office bonanzas.

The key, observers say, is making sure movies on topical subjects are entertaining, not just well intentioned.

” ‘Parallax View’ was a great thriller,” a veteran producer says. ” ‘Three Days of the Condor’ was a good yarn.”

The Operation Desert Storm-set “Jarhead,” he says, might have worked better if it served up a more stinging indictment of war. He believes moviegoers expected that from Sam Mendes after his satire on suburbia in “American Beauty.”

Hollywood’s focus on war-related topics makes perfect sense to Tom Sherak, who’s advising New Line on “Rendition.”

“Right now we live in a world that’s very political,” notes the studio exec turned producer.

Clearly, even more are on the way, including Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop Loss” next year. And the studios are tackling other hot-button topics, including immigration (Searchlight’s “Under the Same Moon” and Weinstein Co.’s “Crossing Over”).

In the end, observers say, it all comes down to alchemy: A project that hits all the right notes with moviegoers will succeed and upend all the conventional wisdom about war movies and current event pics.

Winkler, for one, would do it all over again. “If I liked the script I would do it,” he says. “I always find when I get to a point you believe it could all change with the right project.”

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