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New marching orders

Iraq war overshadowing WWII films

It’s never easy to market a period pic. But with movies set during World War II, the studios have some unusual challenges of late, as the real-world war in Iraq weighs heavily on auds’ minds.

Hollywood is flying the WWII flag high this season, with a wave of historical pics taking place during or after the war: Clint Eastwood‘s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Steven Soderbergh‘s spy thriller “The Good German,” even Robert De Niro‘s intel history “The Good Shepherd,” which features stretches set in the U.S. and Europe during and after the war.

Add to that Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and Sony Pictures Classics’ upcoming release of the Paul Verhoeven WWII resistance drama “Black Book” early next year and you have some serious troop movement.

But demos have shifted since the last wave of big WWII productions — “Saving Private Ryan,” “Pearl Harbor,” “U-571” and “The Thin Red Line” — scored kudos and B.O. between 1998 and 2001. For one, the percentage of Americans born before 1945 has declined considerably.

Some pundits suggest the population shift is why “Flags” tallied just $34 million in seven weeks; previous Eastwood movies followed the same release pattern and built up to $100 million after their kudos boosts.

But as long as studios are intent on making 1940s-set historical pics — Fred Schepisi is on board to direct “Beast of Bataan,” about the WWII death march, and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are developing a followup to “Band of Brothers” for HBO, this time set in the Pacific — they’ll be honing their plans of attack.

Some strategies already in play:

  • Tailor the trailer. “The Good Shepherd” is about events as much as 60 years past. But Universal cut three spots — including one aimed at younger auds that downplays the period elements and plays up the thrills and star Angelina Jolie.

  • Use technology the Greatest Generation never dreamed of. “The Good German” Web site features a snappy interactive photo gallery that, “Lost”-style, gives the film life beyond the screen.

  • Stay quieter than a soldier behind enemy lines. Warners and Par have been careful to avoid references to World War II in touting Eastwood’s two war films, instead focusing on universal themes like the marketing of heroism and the subjectivity of history.

In other words, marketing World War II movies used to be a frontal assault. Now it’s more of an ambush.