Times Staff Writer

Alan Parker's "Birdy," which never got off the ground during its initial Christmas release, is being groomed for new flight by Tri-Star Pictures.

Tri-Star canceled plans for a national opening in late January and February to reassess the marketing strategy. Following some belated audience research and test-marketing, the film opens in 29 theaters in New York today and is scheduled to move into wide release in other cities, including Los Angeles, over the next month.

"Birdy" is a classic marketing challenge: a film with fanatical admirers but no broad following. The nation's top critics loved it, as do research audiences, according to Tri-Star. But how do you lure moviegoers to a film with two still-emerging talents, Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, in a drama superficially about adolescent mental illness--especially when Modine spends most of the film curled up as a bird?

Tri-Star's answer was to rush a "wet print" of the just-completed film into three theaters in Los Angeles, New York in Toronto on Dec. 21, qualifying the film for the '84 Oscars. The hope was that nominations would put "Birdy" on sure commercial footing.

The content of "Birdy" didn't attract the largely traditional Oscar voters, however. And the preview trailers and ads apparently did little to convey the film's passion to moviegoers, especially young ones. Swamped by high-profile Christmas competition, "Birdy" didn't even create the media buzz that Tri-Star had expected.

"It was a gamble that didn't pay off," Tri-Star President David Matalon acknowledged. To date, "Birdy" has grossed just over $500,000. It wasn't the only casualty of the Oscar-qualifying strategy: "Mass Appeal" vanished almost instantly and "Mrs. Soffel" is disappearing after a meager two-month take of $4 million.

With prompting from A&M; Films, the fledgling company that produced "Birdy" as well as "The Breakfast Club," Tri-Star committed to some special handling. "Birdy" opened on Feb. 1 in Dallas and Houston with two contrasting ad campaigns. On the basis of those results and other research data, a new marketing campaign has been developed emphasizing the uplifting friendship at the heart of "Birdy."

Tri-Star and A&M; are guardedly optimistic that the film's forbidding subject matter can be overcome. "What we've found is that it's not enough for people to hear that the picture is excellent once," Matalon says. "They have to hear it four or five times."

'MASK' MATTERS: Peter Bogdanovich, who has tried harassing, denouncing and even suing Universal Pictures and producer Martin Starger over the final version of "Mask," tried a new strategy Thursday: diplomacy.

Calm and professorial before reporters and TV cameras at a morning press conference, Bogdanovich said that the version of "Mask" being released today in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto is "not the movie that we all made." He expressed hope that his own version would be restored for the film's national release on March 21 and blamed the problems on a "gigantic series of misunderstandings and corporate snafus."

He emphasized that the battle for control is not over just "a movie" but over "a real mother and her son" (played by Cher and Eric Stoltz.)

Bogdanovich confirmed that he has asked Universal to remove his possessory credit--"Peter Bogdanovich's 'Mask' "--from the film. Earlier this week, he unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order that would have enjoined the film's release.

Elaborating on claims made in a suit filed last week, Bogdanovich said that Universal and Starger violated the director's contractual rights by replacing 14 minutes of Bruce Springsteen music with "far less meaningful" songs (by Bob Seger) and deleting "eight minutes" of essential scenes.

Industry reaction to Bogdanovich's struggle has been one of disbelief that he would undermine a film hailed as his triumphant comeback. Bogdanovich isn't concerned: "I've had more offers than I've had since the 'Last Picture Show.' "

Universal broke a stoic silence on "Mask" late Thursday, stating it was not in the "best interests of the film to engage in a point-by-point public refutation of the many false or misleading statements attributed to (Bogdanovich)." Producer Starger and studio chief Frank Price said in the statement that they were "particularly grateful" to Seger, whose music "enhances the film in a very postive way."

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