Whether the press has or hasn't had it in for "Ishtar"--as some have suggested--the public has apparently spoken: According to its trend at the box office, where it took in only $11.5 million in its first 20 days, "Ishtar" appears dead in the desert.

"The essence of it is that the second weekend (Memorial Day) was the determining factor," said industry analyst Art Murphy. "The fact that the figures did not go up and continued to decline means they'll have to write off some of their costs. It won't be a total write-off. Secondary markets are a place to generate a little more revenue."

Discounting foreign marketing, the "Ishtar" salvage operation looks something like this:

"Ishtar" is now on 1,000-plus screens and in coming weeks, said a Columbia exec, "we'll continue to hold as many as possible."

RCA/Columbia Pictures Video will probably release the vidcassette this Thanksgiving, with an initial shipment of 100,000 units, on sale at $89.95, according to a company spokesman.

"At a dollar a rental, 'Ishtar' might be the year's biggest bargain," the rep said. "Other controversial bombs like 'Heaven's Gate' and 'Howard the Duck' did fairly well in rentals, and neither of them got a rave review like The Times gave 'Ishtar.' "

HBO won't reveal how much it paid for cable rights, but a spokesman said, "We have a contract to air all Columbia films released in 1987."

The sound-track album is further delayed. A Capitol Records exec told us, "I could only speculate that at this time the record may never come out. We're wondering why (Elaine May, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) haven't delivered it yet. They're not talking to us at present."

Even if the film does end up as this year's mega-bomb, it won't much bother Columbia's parent company, Murphy added: "Coca-Cola probably makes more money an hour than 'Ishtar' cost to make."

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