Inside move: Lion gauges Kaige

MGM may push 'Softly' into straight-to-vid

After twin February flops, the Lion is trying to sidestep another possible thorn in the paw from helmer Chen Kaige’s English-language debut.

Rumors are rife in Europe surrounding “Killing Me Softly,” whose domestic rights MGM bought for $8 million.

MGM has repeatedly pushed back the U.S. release, now to the second half of 2002, even though the pic has debuted in Japan and Italy.

MGM says it delayed the pic’s release to gauge how to market the erotic thriller. Heather Graham plays a woman who leaves her fiance for a kinky relationship with Joseph Fiennes’ dangerous stranger.

A trip straight to video would be, execs acknowledge, a disappointing outcome for the director of 1993’s “Farewell My Concubine,” which notched two Oscar noms. But MGM says it’s still pondering.

“They can speculate all they want, but we haven’t made a decision yet,” MGM vice chairman and chief operating officer Chris McGurk says. “When you step back a bit, probably the issue is that it’s kind of a ‘tweener:’ Is it an MGM movie or a UA movie — a wide release or a platform?”

Pic’s first two weeks in Japan were solid, cranking out $2.4 million in 203 theaters.

Distrib Amuse Entertainment told Variety it was “ashamed” to release subsequent numbers, but producers say the film should gross $5 million there.

Italian distrib Filmauro professed satisfaction with its first weekend — $688,000 on 200 screens. That’s despite so-so reviews, such as Variety‘s, which called it “Zalman King-meets-vintage Brian De Palma, without the latter’s wit or style.”

Producers say they opened overseas first to show MGM the film can make money, despite its flaws, with solid support.

“If everyone does as well as Japan and Italy did, it will get $30 million in overseas box office,” said producer Tom Pollock of Montecito Picture Co. “That’s pretty good. I want them to take heart from that.”

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