When a bad movie flops, a studio chief can’t really heap all the blame on his marketing gurus.

But what if a studio sales team is confronted with an unexpected gem, and it has no marketable elements like a big flashy star or a “Die Hard” premise?

Warners finds itself in that position with a small family film called “A Little Princess.” Of all the studios in town, Warners gets the most nervous about how to handle these delicate sleepers, as its staff is more accustomed to blitzing moviegoers with mammoth star-studded vehicles.

“A Little Princess” has no stars, and was directed by an unknown 33-year-old Mexican helmer named Alfonso Cuaron (see review, page 35). His only other feature film was a dark romantic comedy about AIDS in Mexico called “Love in the Time of Hysteria,” a Spanish-lingo film that was a box-office hit… in Mexico.

But the advance buzz on the $17 million “Princess” rivals the word on the big-budget extravaganzas skedded for the summer. Says producer Mark Johnson, “It has gotten the highest test screening scores of any movie that I have produced, and that includes ‘Rain Man’ and ‘Good Morning, Vietnam.'”

“A Little Princess,” based on the eponymous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (“The Secret Garden”), opens in India when an American man must tell his beloved young daughter that he must go fight in World War I. He then takes her to a top boarding school in New York City, promising to return from battle as soon as he can.

But the fable turns ugly when the girl is constantly harassed by the bitter old school mistress. Still, the girl brings magic to the school as she tells mystical love stories to all her friends, which brightens their lives but makes the old hag increasingly hostile.

When the girl learns that her father has been killed in the war, her faith and will are severely tested.

Some early viewers predict that the visually striking film will achieve classic status, and Warners is struggling to turn art into commerce. The studio has moved the release date from late August to May 10 in order to avoid Disney’s “Pocahontas.” Still, Universal’s “Casper” opens on May 26, only one week after “A Little Princess” goes wide.

Warners also decided to open the picture in New York and L.A. one week before it widens to 1,300 screens in order to allow the critical response to build.

But the feel-good picture also has a distinct holiday tone, and sources say that there was some dispute about shoving it into a summer dominated by Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone – especially since Warners is promoting the film with a pint-sized budget. Warners did not want to hold the film for that long when it has already been finished.

Rob Friedman, Warners’ president of worldwide advertising and publicity, says “We’re not putting a big burden on it from a cost perspective so that it will have time to find its audience and achieve the success it deserves.”

Johnson and Cuaron are going to various cities to promote “A Little Princess,” and have made themselves available to the press. And Warners is making traditional ad buys on TV, print and radio. But Friedman admits that the “Princess” campaign doesn’t approach “Casper” proportions.

Still, Johnson and Cuaron agree with Friedman that “A Little Princess” should be treated as a sleeper and allowed to find an audience. They also hope that the film doesn’t get pigeon-holed, as much of the strongest response has come from adults and young boys despite its girl-dominated cast.

But one must ask if these large-scale marketers can make “A Little Princess” a big hit. Says Johnson, “The only way to sell this movie is by getting people to see it.”