Marketing focuses on stars

LONDON — “Lions for Lambs” opens day-and-date across Europe this weekend hoping that the dazzling star quality of Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep will help the political drama shrug off poor reviews.

“Lions” world premiered in London Oct. 22 and Cruise and co. have been tubthumping hard across Europe in an effort to make the first release from the reinvented United Artists label an international B.O. contender.

Local releases generating interest are Spanish coming-of-ager “Suso’s Tower,” German family film “The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island” and Italo teen romancer “Come tu mi vuoi.”

In Blighty, “Lions for Lambs” goes out on 403 screens via Fox bruised and battered after a ferocious mauling from the Brit crix.

“Liberal Hollywood sends its big guns into the ‘war on terror’ and winds up in a dreadful mess,” wrote Anthony Quinn in the Independent. The Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw described it as “dull, inert, schoolteacherly, desperately self-conscious.” “Robert Redford’s sermon on Iraq is wordy, over-written — and deeply disappointing,” according to Tim Robey in the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps most concerning for Fox is the verdict from the Sun tabloid: “If you are looking for a fun night at the multiplex, steer clear of ‘Lions for Lambs.’ ”

U.K. bookers project an opening in the region of $1.3 million to $1.5 million.

Exposure is no problem for “Lions for Lambs,” which has been in the media spotlight since Cruise and Redford attended London world premiere..

An intriguing Bollywood battle kicks off this weekend at U.K. theaters. This weekend marks Diwali, the Hindu festival, and sees Shah Rukh Khan starrer “Om Shanti Om” go head to head with A-list helmer Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Saawariya.”

Eros International saddles up “Om Shanti Om” on 51 and Sony put “Saawariya” out on 46 — both bullish releases for Bollywood product in the U.K. Bookers predict the former will win the B.O. duel largely thanks to the buzz generated by the splashy Nov. 8 world premiere in London and the pulling power of Khan, who concurs with U.K. exhibs in his typically self-confident manner: “I am India’s giant and I have love on my side. Mine should be the bigger hit.”

Both pics are expected to post openings comfortably north of $500,000.

Paramount releases Sean Penn’s youth rebellion pic “Into the Wild” on 84 and it should do solid biz at upmarket sites thanks to strong reviews. “The best film the writer-director has ever made,” declared Daily Telegraph reviewer Sukhdev Sandhu. Working against it is fact that topliner Emile Hirsch in unknown to Brit auds.

With a public holiday in Madrid Friday, Fox put out “Lions for Lambs” Thursday, building to a large 300-print nationwide run from Friday.

In its favor in Spain, it’s being positioned as a star-vehicle the names Redford, Streep and Cruise blare out from billboard. Issues merely get second-billing in a series of log-line questions, such as “Whom would you fight for?”

“It’s a big print run, but the stars still shine in Spain. So it could make some early money,” said one exhibitor.

Also, anti-Bush sentiment is running high in Spain. Some 82% of Spaniards opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Against “Lions” taking a lion’s share of new B.O., however, is that e-word is seeping through from the U.S. that the film might not live up to its ambitions. And key Spanish crits echo lukewarm U.S. critical response.

So exhibitors are doubting whether “Lions” has legs. “There’s an idea that it’s courageous putting the pic out day-and-date. I think it shows a lack of confidence in the film,” said one.

So WB’s “The Orphanage,” at a magnificent 24-day $27 million cume through last weekend, could well retain top spot for the fifth weekend in a row.

Another ballsy bet, this time from WB and producer Mediapro, is a 170-print launch for “Suso’s Tower,” a warm-hearted coming-of-ager, set in a Northern Spanish mining district, directed by Spaniard Tom Fernandez.

“Tower” is a small film and a debut but it played very well at September’s San Sebastian fest. A middling print run gets it into multiplexes, which offer the chance of buoyant mass-audience word-of-mouth.

“We’ll get a lot of coverage with 170 prints. We’ve got it into the top multiplexes. It’s a feel-good dramedy that will get good recommendations from spectators,” said Pablo Nogueroles, general manager, Warner Bros. Intl. Spain.

Exhibitors raise questions about “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which UPI releases on 182. “I can’t see it working, not because of the anti-Spanish sentiment in the film, but simply because it’s not a very good film. It will play to middling results, maybe an opening $900,000 at best,” the booker said.

Cruise and Redford take on a hoard of blood-thirsty vampires at the Teutonic box office as Fox’s “Lions for Lambs” goes up against Concorde’s “30 Days of Night.”

Local exhibs are predicting family films will continue their reign, however, with Florian Baxmeyer’s opener “The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island” set to join animated hits “Lissi” and “Ratatouille” at the top of the charts.

Studio Hamburg’s modern-day, English-language adaptation of the classic kid detective book series by Robert Arthur, Jr., “The Three Investigators” boasts a built-in audience as “Three Investigator” audio books remain wildly popular in Germany; pic goes out via Disney.

A slew of broadly aimed titles are again crowding the field in Germany and questing for a slice of the box office pie.

Sony Pictures’ “Good Luck Chuck,” starring Jessica Alba, may generate interest as romantic comedies usually do well with Teutonic auds, while Universal’s “Atonement” looks likely to attract arthouse crowds.

Exhibs are expecting “Lions for Lambs” to have crossover appeal with its timely subject matter and star wattage, although the political drama has received mixed reviews, with local critics complaining the film is too talky and didactic. Daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote, “The film celebrates naivete as an American virtue — and as America’s ruinous fate.”

In Italy, local heartthrobs Nicolas Vaporidis and Cristiana Capotondi are going up against Ben Stiller starrer “The Heartbreak Kid” in a frame crowded with eight outings.

“Come tu mi vuoi,” a teen romancer starring the two hot local thesps, is being outed by Medusa on 363 with high expectations given that their previous pic together, “Night Before Exams,” is Italy’s biggest recent sleeper, having scored more than $17 million in 2006.

Universal is outing “The Heartbreak Kid” on 300 amid tepid critical reaction. Popular local website mymovies.it complained that the Farrelly Brothers comedy “is funny only in the first part,” giving it just two stars out of five.

Italy’s other big opener is local historical drama “I Vicere” by Roberto Faenza, out on 202 via 01 Distribuzion, marketing of which has been damaged by reports it was rejected by the Rome Film Festival.

“Sleuth,” starring Michael Caine and Jude Law in the remake of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz classic, is being outed by Sony on 67 following its Venice bow, while BIM Distribuzione has Cannes standout “The Edge of Heaven” out on 47.

In France, David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” bowed strongly for Metropolitan on 256, taking in $325,000 on opening day, Wednesday. Toplining favorite Gallic bad boy Vincent Cassel, it has proved a critical hit in a country long enamoured with helmer Cronenberg. Liberation felt it “earned instant recognition as a gangster film classic.”

Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” has also been well received, bowing at $221,320 on 323 for Warners. Premiere hailed it as “American cinema at its finest,” Le Parisien called it “intelligent, harsh and brilliantly portrayed.”

“Darling” was the only major local release of the week. Helmer Christine Carriere’s harrowing study of domestic violence opened at only $70,320 on 107 for Gaumont.

Additional reporting by Ed Meza (Germany), David Hayhurst (France), John Hopewell (Spain) and Nick Vivarelli (Italy).

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