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Goldwyn dodges ‘Shakespeare factor’

A month after the Samuel Goldwyn Co. released Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado about Nothing” in New York City, the independent film company ventured into an alien land in the name of movie marketing.

Trying to see if this Shakespeare on celluloid could appeal to the young, Goldwyn recruited 13-and-14-year-olds from suburban San Fernando Valley shopping malls to watch its film at a nearby multiplex.

This test audience provided a glimpse into the box office prospects of “Much Ado.” Not only did the Valley teens find the film entertaining and romantic, much to Goldwyn’s delight many were aware of it from the promotional materials the indie had sent to area schools in prior weeks.

Goldwyn management concluded it could successfully combat the “Shakespeare factor”– the perception among many that the Bard’s works equals “fruity language and costumes and effete goings-on,” said Eammon Bowles, Goldwyn’s VP of theatrical distribution. For just as Shakespeare’s name pulls in some, it’s a turn-off to others.

Goldwyn management decided early on that if it were to successfully establish “Much Ado” as a cross-over film, it would have to present it as a fun, romantic alternative to the major studio’s popcorn movies.

At $ 12.6 million at the box office through its 73rd day of release, Branagh’s adaptation of “Much Ado” has managed to hold its own in a summer in which screens have been gobbled up by tales of dinosaurs running amok and crooked lawyers.

In its 11th week of release,”Much Ado’s” business was falling at a 5%-to-10% rate, good when compared to the more typical 25%-to-30% drop-off of most films. How Goldwyn has accomplished this is a case study of how an independent film can break through with skillful marketing.

Even though Shakespeare hasn’t traditionally fared well on movie screens, Goldwyn recognized the film’s commercial appeal — a director with cachet, a star-studded cast and a rich, lusty story — and exploited those elements. But president of worldwide production Tom Rothman said Goldwyn, which financed the picture, wasn’t thinking about marketing when it began talking to Branagh about “Much Ado.”

The director and star spoke of his passion to bring this Shakespearian comedy to the screen at the time Goldwyn was releasing “Henry V.” That was Branagh’s first cinematic Shakespeare, in 1989.

Rothman said he decided to back “Much Ado” because of his faith in Branagh, even though many considered it a “daft enterprise.” No one had previously made a successful comedy of Shakespeare on film. But Rothman believed in Branagh’s gift to enliven and invigorate the 400-year-old story. Its production budget is said to be $ 10 million-to-$ 15 million, an expensive undertaking for a small company like Goldwyn.

Branagh envisioned “Much Ado” with an international, multi-cultural cast, an unusual approach Rothman felt would attract audiences. But at the time Goldwyn committed to finance the picture, there was only Branagh and his wife and co-star, Emma Thompson, attached. Stars Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves would sign on later.

Branagh chose this play with commercial elements in mind. “Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible works. It’s a bawdy tale of romance, comedy and deception written entirely in prose, rather than poetry. And Branagh envisioned shooting it entirely on location in Tuscany, where in Rothman’s words,”the sun is golden and sex is in the air.”

Goldwyn purposefully released the film on a date to avoid butting up against major competition. The May 7 opening pitted the movie against Warner Bros.’ “Dave,” but before the release of what was then considered a potential blockbuster, “Cliffhanger.”

Goldwyn used a platform release strategy, opening the film exclusively in New York, followed by Los Angeles and San Francisco the second weekend. In subsequent weeks, the movie opened in key cities, such as Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The aim was to build that golden commodity that can’t be bought, positive word-of-mouth.

By Memorial Day weekend, Goldwyn felt the time was right to expand “Much Ado” onto 22 to 23 screens, booking it into sophisticated commercial theaters and larger art houses. At deadline, “Much Ado” was on 226 screens, with many large and mid-sized cities left to play.

In contrast to usual indie practices, Goldwyn purposefully avoided screening “Much Ado” at film festivals, with the exception of two small festivals occurring close to its May 7 premiere. Festivals are useful places to establish influence among critics, but Goldwyn didn’t want “Much Ado” to be pigeon-holed as art-house fare.

But Goldwyn did go after the education crowd, putting on a special showing of the film at the annual convention of the Shakespeare Society of America in Atlanta prior to the release.

To encourage interest among students, Goldwyn assembled a “Much Ado” study guide, which it mailed nationwide to high school and college English departments.

For a cost-conscious indie such as Goldwyn, publicity always plays an integral part of a marketing campaign. And “Much Ado” had Branagh, a charismatic wunderkind whose fierce talent and likeable personality make him a press favorite.

Branagh couldn’t start on the pubilcity trail until May 2 because of theatrical commitments, but once free, he was ubiquitous, chatting about “Much Ado” on U.S. television and giving newspaper and magazine interviews.

But prior to the release, “Much Ado” scored coveted pre-release publicity. Premiere and US magazines featured its stars and the rich European location in spreads. (In anticipation of glossy magazine interest, Goldwyn took the unsual, and costly, step of dispatching two prestigious photographers, Firooz Zahedi and Theo Westenberger, to the location, in addition to its regular unit photographer).

At present, Goldwyn is hoping for a late-summer blitz in which it will expand distribution to as many as 700 screens. This won’t be easy in a summer jammed with hits.

Still, if Goldwyn pulls it off, the indie is considering purchasing network TV time.

As of July 20, “Much Ado” has accomplished its near $ 13 million at the box office, with prints and advertising spending estimated at $ 2 milllion. Goldwyn projects the film could yield anywhere from $ 20 million to $ 30 million.

So the question remains: Can Goldwyn manufacture enough ado to sustain the momentum of “Much Ado?” As fall approaches, Goldwyn’s work continues.

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