Paramount tries ‘Heart’ surgery

Studio cuts screens for Jolie film

“A Mighty Heart” is still beating.

Paramount Vantage has come up with a new game plan for the pic after a weak opening and a steep decline in the second frame, cutting back the number of screens from 1,350 to 651 beginning this weekend.

Idea is to keep the film, starring Angelina Jolie, alive in urban and other key markets with the goal of a longer box office run — a key advantage of a more limited play.

It’s basically a retroactive platform release and a variation on a theme played by other studios recently. Both 20th Century Fox with “Borat” last fall and the Weinstein Co. with “Sicko” last month decided to cut back on the number of screens shortly in advance of the films’ launches.

While some in the media speculated that the companies had cold feet, the moves turned out to be prescient, allowing word of mouth to spread. And that’s what Par Vantage is hoping for.

“Mighty Heart” took in $5.4 million for its June 22 opening weekend, drawing a disappointing per-screen average of $2,914. In its second frame, the tally was $1.6 million.

With a cume of $7.6 million through Wednesday, “Heart” — which recounts the harrowing story of journalist Daniel Pearl’s death through the eyes of his widow, Mariane Pearl — turned out to be a tougher sell than the specialty unit had anticipated.

Both liberals and conservatives were suspicious, and it’s far from the star vehicle that Jolie fans might anticipate. But those who’ve seen it have been very enthused, and Par Vantage wants time to spread the word.

The year-old label still plans on an aggressive awards campaign for “Mighty Heart,” with Jolie’s performance in particular receiving kudos buzz.

The film is expected to hit DVD during awards season. A key goal of any kudos strategist is to ensure that a film is seen — a serious consideration during the year-end glut — and the DVD will help considerably.

Focus Features also took a gamble in deciding to go wide with female drama “Evening,” which bowed June 26 on 977 screens. Film, which wasn’t well reviewed, opened at $3.5 million, hardly a glowing number.

Par Vantage execs said they took a chance with the wide opening of “A Mighty Heart” on June 22. They were encouraged by the heavy media coverage of Jolie and Brad Pitt at Cannes in May, and by the success of last fall’s expansion of “Babel” to 1,251 screens in its third frame.

Par Vantage also didn’t plan on so much competition in terms of summer counterprogramming for adults, with execs recalling the lack of such fare last summer, when the success of “The Devil Wears Prada” took Hollywood by surprise.

This summer, adults have plenty to choose from, including “Sicko,” indie faves “Waitress,” “Once” and “La Vie en rose” and even Hollywood fare like “Knocked Up” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

Vantage believes it even lost some of its aud to Dimension-MGM’s horror pic “1408,” starring John Cusack, who draws older women.

The pre-opening cutback in the number of “Sicko” screens is paying off. Moore may be a celebrity in his own right, but his latest target, health care, isn’t as sexy as the politically charged themes of “Fahrenheit 911,” meaning “Sicko” needed to rely on buzz to lure auds. It’s working. Bowing June 26 on 441 screens, “Sicko” took $4.5 million — more than “Heart” with only one-third as many screens.

Through Wednesday, the “Sicko” cume was $7.1 million. Film expanded to 626 screens on Tuesday and to 703 today.

When a film opens on fewer screens and lines begin forming, “It becomes an event,” one veteran specialty distrib said. “When you are dealing with bigger films, it probably doesn’t matter as much. It’s a business practice, but when you have a film that is going to take a little bit of nurturing and a lot of word of mouth, it should be a limited release.”

A rival distrib said that, in retrospect, a platform release would likewise have helped “Mighty Heart.”

“The public have the perception that the movie was a failure,” the distrib said. “If it had opened on 100 or 200 screens, the grosses would have looked good, and the headlines would have reflected that.”

TWC wasn’t completely traditional in its release of “Sicko,” with a bow in 400 theaters unusual. (Lionsgate is distributing the film for TWC.) Generally, a film will open in Gotham and Los Angeles and then expand by 10 cities the next week, another 10 cities the following week and so on.

By opening in 441 top cities and other key markets, such as college towns, TWC was looking to capitalize on Moore’s fanbase.

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