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Theater Owners’ Yuletide Dilemma: ‘Godfather III’ : Movies: Faced with booking a film they can’t see yet, this nevertheless may be a deal they can’t refuse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine that you’re out shopping for a new car but that the salesman only has photos to show. Would you plunk down your money? Probably, no.

But if the salesman promises you a car made by a major auto maker, featuring “name” components, quick acceleration and long-running power, would you find it more tempting? Probably, yes.

That’s the situation theater owners across the country are facing as they consider booking Francis Ford Coppola’s highly anticipated “The Godfather Part III” into their theaters during the busy Christmas movie-going season.

Few people except those closest to Coppola and top executives at Paramount Pictures have seen the movie yet. Plus there’s a crunch of other features competing for screens and opening within a few days of each other. Among them: “The Russia House,” with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer; “Kindergarten Cop,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger; “Awakenings,” with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” with Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

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So, what’s a theater owner to do? Does he hold out for the big-name promises? How many screens can he commit and to which film? Will he end up with a slow-selling Tucker, or a fast-selling Toyota?

Of course, what sets “The Godfather Part III” apart from the other films this season are the great expectations aroused by its landmark predecessors, the 1972 and 1974 Oscar-winning best pictures, “Godfathers” I and II. With Coppola directing again, the new film boasts such names as Al Pacino in the role of Mafia chief Michael Corleone, Diane Keaton as his estranged wife, Talia Shire as his sister and Andy Garcia as an illegitimate Corleone family member.

“Virtually any exhibitor would be interested in playing ‘Godfather Part III,’ ” said General Cinema Corp.'s Robert Miller, vice president of film marketing. He said that General Cinema would show the movie but that it is premature to say in how many theaters. “There’s an enormous amount of interest in this film. Paramount did a very nice job in getting a trailer out there early, and they did it in a way that created a new interest among people who are not familiar with the first two ‘Godfather’ movies.”

AMC Theaters West Coast vice president Greg Rutkowski said his company also “anticipates ‘The Godfather Part III.’ Based on the success of (the first two movies), we’re naturally thinking of booking it,” he said, although he declined to give any specifics.

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All the fanfare has led Paramount to ask top dollar for the right to show “The Godfather Part III,” industry sources said. One described the terms Paramount is seeking as a 12-week commitment to run the film, plus “huge” percentages of the daily grosses in the first weeks.

Although no one contacted for this article would comment on the record while negotiations are under way, they said the terms Paramount is seeking are not considered unusual for an “event” film such as “The Godfather Part III.”

Paramount said it will open “The Godfather Part III” on Dec. 25 in as many as 1,800 theaters. But bookers will have to wait until the morning of Dec. 12 to see the $60-million, years-in-the-making film at Village Theater in Westwood and in other major cities around the nation.

A Paramount spokesman acknowledged that the screening comes at the last possible moment, but said such scheduling is not all that uncommon in the history of major movie releases. “And certainly ‘The Godfather’ ranks in that category. This is the most anticipated movie of the year, as evidenced by audience reaction to the trailers,” the spokesman said.

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Part of the problem with the late exhibitor screening date is that it leaves a scant two weeks between it and the opening. That is the legal minimum in some 24 states where laws forbid “blind bidding” on movies--the practice of theater owners committing money to show a movie without seeing it first.

“To say Paramount is cutting it close with the nation’s theater owners is an understatement,” said one marketing executive at a rival studio. “It forces the exhibitors to do a juggling act with booking their theaters.”

“The razor thin time frame is very unusual,” said John Krier, the head of Exhibitor Relations, a company that disseminates box-office data. But, a source said, “Coppola has always done that. He pushes it to the inch.”

The tight scheduling is the result of widely reported production delays, during which the studio pushed back the opening date of the $60-million project from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

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As late as September, Coppola was reshooting portions of the movie with Pacino and Keaton, and even the Christmas opening was in doubt until Coppola screened the movie for Paramount executives late in October. At that time, they reached a decision that the movie could be completed and released in time to fulfill the expectations of theater owners who had guaranteed Christmas season playing dates.

Since the October decision, a Paramount spokesman said that technical work on the film has been completed and that the film is in the print-making stage.

But one insider says some theater personnel have been told not to make plans for Christmas Eve: “They don’t expect the film to be delivered until the night before it opens.”


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