‘Munchausen’s’ Marketing Woes

Times Staff Writer

“He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” sniffs The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson in the upcoming movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”

Horatio Jackson, a symbol of the chilling winds of reason and rationality blowing into the 18th Century, was deriding his fantastical, whimsical nemesis--the Baron von Munchausen. He could just as well have been echoing Terry Gilliam’s modern-day detractors.

With “Baron Munchausen,” the controversial director of “Time Bandits” and “Brazil” has delivered to Columbia Pictures the most expensive, ambitious film of his career, a two-hour fantasy epic exploding with special effects. Despite a massive advertising campaign, the film opened in Germany Dec. 8 to lukewarm audiences.

Here, the European-produced film had barely arrived at Columbia’s Burbank studio when some Hollywood skeptics began predicting its early demise at the box office. (Though that didn’t stop Joel Silver, producer of the hits “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon,” from recruiting Gilliam to direct his upcoming “Watchmen,” a film being adapted from the comic book.)


“Baron Munchausen,” which Columbia has screened privately for select journalists and industry officials, puts Gilliam’s awesome imagination on vivid display. But even Columbia executives concede that it won’t be easy to market an 18th- Century fantasy starring a 10-year-old girl (Sarah Polley) and an English actor without much name recognition here (John Neville).

By contract, the studio cannot even advertise the film’s biggest name, Robin Williams, who makes an uncredited appearance as a moon king whose head spins off.

The film presents Columbia President Dawn Steel with her most challenging marketing job since she assumed control of the studio a year and a half ago. It was her predecessor, David Puttnam, who agreed to buy the theatrical and TV rights to the film in most countries, including the States, and who convinced Columbia’s RCA video arm to buy the video rights. But it will be up to Steel to recoup the company’s $20.5-million investment.

The remaining production costs were absorbed by European investors and Film Finances, the company that insured “Baron Munchausen’s” original $23.5-million budget against cost overruns. Film Finances now estimates the movie’s direct cost at “less than” $40 million. But a Film Finances official would not be more specific, nor would he provide a figure on such additional indirect costs as interest payments and overhead.

Last week, Columbia’s new marketing team huddled to assess marketing strategies for the film. It was the first week on the job for Buffy Shutt, the studio’s new marketing president and her equally new executive vice president for marketing, Kathy Jones. Last fall, the studio brought in Susan Pile, formerly at Fox, to act as a marketing and publicity consultant on the film. All three women worked with Steel when she was at Paramount.

Columbia executives are attempting to look beyond traditional marketing notions, using terms like “psychographics” instead of “demographics” to emphasize their efforts to target an audience with the same mind-set, rather than targeting specific age groups or income levels. As one studio official put it: “The film has multiple audiences that don’t split into pure demographic groups.”

Columbia has tentative plans to release “Baron Munchausen” March 10 for exclusive showings in 50 to 60 towns and cities that are likely to be receptive. That includes college towns where comedy troupe Monty Python (of which Gilliam is a member) is popular, and areas where residents turned out in big numbers for “Time Bandits” in 1981. The studio also is preparing research screenings to test the reactions of children.

“We believe this is an extraordinary movie and we are supporting it,” Steel said.

Still, there’s cause for concern: The film opened six weeks ago to mixed reviews in West Germany and unenthusiastic audience reception. The $40-million investment in the film, said the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, “can be seen every minute . . . (the film) surges and boils and roars and sizzles.” The camera moves as if “the creditors were looking over its shoulder,” the magazine added.

The national daily paper Frankfurter Allgemeine, in its review, said: “During the longer stretches, one gets the impression someone has seen lots of Fellini films, and then said: ‘I can do the same, but better.’ ”

And Suddeutsche Zeitung of Munich commented: “It is a hectic film, with hardly a pause for breath. It is a noisy film that one can’t really believe, even though it is about Baron Muenchausen .”

But TZ, another paper in Munich, called it a “really beautiful, exciting fairy tale . . . fast and witty.”

Since its Dec. 8 opening there in 252 theaters--considered a wide release in West Germany--the film has dropped from third to 15th among its competition and has grossed only $2.4 million, according to Erich Kocian, editor of Blickpunkt: Film. In neighboring Austria, the film sank so badly after the first week that its distributor, Neue Constantin, stopped reporting its grosses.

All that despite Neue Constantin’s massive advertising and publicity campaign, which blanketed both Germany and Austria. “The papers and magazines were full of advertisements,” said Kocian.

But some of the film’s fans, like Playboy critic Bruce Williamson, contend that German audiences were more hostile because the folklore of Baron Munchausen--who in real life was a yarn-spinning soldier for Frederick the Great--is an integral part of German culture. Some Germans would be bored by the idea of the film, Williamson said in an interview. Others might be offended because it didn’t conform to their own notions about the baron.

In this country, the film is generating a mixed reaction among the handful of critics who have seen it--much as Gilliam’s earlier films did.

Williamson, whose review appears in the April Playboy, said he thought the movie was “terrific and imaginative.” GQ’s Kenneth Turan said in an interview that he loved the film’s “richness . . . Gilliam has a really unique view of fantasy.” Both critics had praised Gilliam’s previous films.

But Hollywood’s two trade papers, Daily Variety and the Hollyood Reporter--the first major American publications to print reviews--were not impressed. Variety’s Todd McCarthy complained that the film “falls short in wit” while the Reporter’s Duane Byrge decried it as a “noisy and overly abstruse fantasy-adventure.” Variety flatly stated that the film “has no chance of even approaching break-even.”

Another cause for concern at Columbia are the results of two market research screenings conducted last October in Paramus, N.J., and Roosevelt Field, N.Y. While some in the audience liked the film, others walked out.

Gilliam, however, dismisses those results, noting that his films always defy traditional Hollywood marketing precepts. “You’ve got to prepare an audience for it,” Gilliam said during a recent telephone interview from his London home.

“Baron Munchausen” has been plagued by production problems and bad publicity for more than a year. The cost overruns on its original $23.5-million budget posed the most serious troubles, but there were others. In the midst of production hold-ups, the film’s best-known actor, Sean Connery, walked out on his role. (He was later replaced by Robin Williams.)

In addition, the film is now the target of a lawsuit from producer Allan A. Buckhantz, who owns the rights to the original 1942 German film based on the baron’s life. Buckhantz, who has spent 20 years trying to remake that film, accuses Columbia of copyright infringement. Columbia maintains that the film and its title are based on German folk tales in the public domain.

In December, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Columbia to put a disclaimer on Gilliam’s film and its advertisements--pending a trial on Buchkantz’s allegations. The disclaimer requirement, stating that Gilliam’s film is not a remake of the 1942 German classic, applies internationally, but not in the States.

So far, Gilliam has nothing but kind words about Columbia’s handling of “Baron Munchausen.” That’s a switch for a director who has plenty of reasons for what he calls his “hate-hate relationship with Hollywood.”

Gilliam’s 1981 “Time Bandits,” which cost only $5 million to make, was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood. Avco Embassy Pictures finally picked it up and the film went on to become a moderate hit, grossing $42 million at the box office.

“Brazil,” Gilliam’s next film, became the source of a public feud between the director and its distributor, Universal Pictures, which wanted to edit it to make it shorter and more light-hearted. (Universal’s version of “Brazil” recently aired on TV for the first time.)

But after his rift with European independent producer Thomas Schuhly over the production of “Baron Munchausen,” Gilliam may be feeling a little nostalgic about the studio system. What else could account for his plans to direct “Watchmen” for Joel Silver, a producer who personifies commercial Hollywood?

“I guess I thrive on a certain sense of adventure.”

Times Staff Writer William Tuohy contributed to this story from Bonn.