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H’wood plays possum with its turkeys

SO HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS: “Town and Country” is not a terrible movie. It’s just being handled like a terrible movie. No junkets, no glitzy premieres, no screenings for the glossy monthlies. The promotional cost of opening the movie is $5 million less than Disney’s $5 million budget to premiere “Pearl Harbor.”

I can empathize with the folks at New Line. Meltdowns always occur at companies once word flashes across cyberspace that a studio has a turkey on its hands. It’s hard to erase the stigma.

People have tried, of course — tried harder than New Line.

On “Waterworld,” Universal was downright petulant in its defense of its film. On “Titanic,” Bill Mechanic, who was then at Fox, told the press to “shut up until you see the finished picture.” It was good advice.

On “Town and Country,” New Line has simply been evasive.

Questions like “Why are you hiding ‘Town and Country?’ ” were met with replies like, “What’s ‘Town and Country?’ ” Warren Beatty didn’t help by issuing pronouncements that “It’s not my fault.”

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BUT THERE’S NO RUNNING AWAY from a $90 million negative. I know more about this subject than I’d like to. As a studio executive, I fostered a few certified bombs. At the end of one test screening, I was the only person left in the theater.

I was lucky, though. My bombs were low-profile.

“Town and Country,” however, has a cast headed by Beatty, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. It was in production and post-production for almost three years. Word kept leaking out about further re-shoots. The press saw blood in the water.

And then there was the Beatty factor. Wherever he treads, the press is sure to follow.

Beatty should understand damage control by now. Earlier in his career he was involved in two classic bombs, “The Fortune” and “Ishtar.” Indeed, Beatty’s tactics in setting up “The Fortune” established his reputation as Master of the Pitch.

When Beatty marched into Columbia, he had what seemed an irresistible package. He would co-star with his pal Jack Nicholson in a film to be directed by Mike Nichols. There’d even be a score by Paul Simon.

Not bad. Indeed, David Begelman, the former agent who then headed Columbia, all but mugged Beatty in his excitement to make the deal. He even accepted Beatty’s other startling pre-condition: In order to get “The Fortune,” the studio would also have to commit to finance a rather arcane tale about a Beverly Hills hairdresser, also to star Beatty.

Despite the actor’s artful pitch, no one at the studio liked the second project, but Begelman rammed the deal through anyway. In the end, of course, “The Fortune” lost a fortune while the afterthought, called “Shampoo,” was a big hit.

So how could New Line have avoided its “Town and Country” nightmare?

Alas, the most effective way to deal with turkeys is not to make them. In hindsight, there are always warning signs. In the case of “Town and Country,” there was no finished script by the time production started. This is always an invitation to disaster.

ON “HEAVEN’S GATE,” ANOTHER FAMOUS debacle, not only was there no finished script but not even a finished budget. Not a credible one, anyway.

Originally titled “The Johnson County War,” the script was a mishmash of classic Western themes. There seemed no way that the $10 million budget could support its ambitious story, and there were curious gaps in the document. It provided for hundreds of horses but hardly anyone to ride or care for them.

Nonetheless, the writer-director, Michael Cimino, had just finished a movie called “The Deer Hunter.” The buzz on the movie was great, even though no one had seen it. United Artists decided it had to have the next Cimino picture, whatever the risk.

The risk turned out to be a mega-risk. The movie came in at three times its original budget, and critics called “Heavens Gate” the worst movie ever made.

The distribution chief of United Artists, Jerry Esbin, observed, “It’s as if somebody called every household in the country and said, ‘There will be a curse on your family if you see this picture.’ ”

“Town and Country” is far from a “Heaven’s Gate.” Indeed, the movie has many moments of wit and charm. The performances are terrific. It moves.

But can it escape its stigma?

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