A Matter of 'Mis' Representation : Without the songs and with subtitles, a new 'Les Miserables' stands as a trickier sell than that blockbuster play.

If ever a studio was hoping for positive word of mouth, it may be Warner Bros. as the Oct. 20 release of one of its major fall films approaches.

"Les Miserables" is a three-hour French film (with English subtitles) starring an actor most famous in the United States for a picture that came out 36 years ago. And, perhaps most vexing to audiences, it is not a big-screen version of the highly popular stage musical.

Like at least 11 films before it, "Les Miserables" is based on Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel. This loose adaptation, set mostly during World War II with flashbacks, is directed by French filmmaker Claude Lelouch (best known in the States for a "A Man and a Woman," released in 1966) and stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, a screen legend in France whose biggest hit in America was 1959's "Breathless."

This is hardly the standard marketing formula from a titanic studio best known for slick comedies and testosterone-charged action films--and one not famous for its skill at building audiences for art house fare (remember this year's "A Little Princess"?).

Foreign films, particularly ones three hours long, are seldom big box-office draws and usually end up being released by companies such as Miramax, Samuel Goldwyn or Sony Pictures Classics--distributors accustomed to handling such fare.

Remember, this is the same Warner Bros. that had a tough time last year selling moviegoers on the three-hour American epic "Wyatt Earp" with a big star (Kevin Costner) and no subtitles.

A Warners official says the studio's decision to pick up "Les Miserables" for distribution in the United States and several foreign markets is not a big deal, pointing out that it has released other foreign-language films in the past. The studio, he says, simply saw a winner and decided to snap it up.

"The first and foremost reason for picking up this movie is that it is a wonderful movie," says Rob Friedman, Warners president of worldwide advertising and publicity. "Certainly this is a film for Oscar consideration. We think it has great potential."

Says Lelouch: "I am very, very flattered that a company which is very mainstream like Warner Bros. . . . would have chosen my film. I am very happy not to have fallen into a classical division of a small company."

Lelouch, who wrote, produced and directed the $20-million picture, says the studio has asked him to direct a remake of the thriller "The Alchemist" next year. He suspects the interest has as much to do with improving relations in the territory as it does in his work.

"You will see more of this from us because we want to enhance our position in the world marketplace," Friedman says.

Explanation: Back those foreign directors if you want to thoroughly infiltrate the lucrative overseas markets and muscle out your American competitors.

That said, Warners has its hands full.

"There is no doubt that this film will be a tough sell, simply for the reason that it is three hours long, it is a foreign-language film requiring the audience to read English subtitles for three hours and it does run the risk of confusion with the musical," says Gordon Armstrong, a movie-marketing specialist who heads Entertainment Marketing Group.

"The musical aspect can be tricky," he adds. "You want to play on the familiarity of the name and the story but you never want to deceive your potential audience in marketing the picture with the message: 'You've seen the musical, here's the movie!' Once they find out it's not true, word of mouth can kill you.

"And let's face it: Word of mouth is what will carry this film, particularly one that hasn't attained all of its deserved accolades yet."

Armstrong is referring to anticipated festival awards and positive reviews. Both, he says, are key tools that Warners undoubtedly hopes to tap to sell "Les Miserables," which performed strongly in France over the summer. Television advertising is tricky; Warners plans to launch a limited campaign, but it will be minimal compared with other Warners films.

Complicating publicity matters for the studio is that Belmondo is ill and has put off all interviews. Lelouch, for his part, will make the media rounds eagerly with his wife, Allesandra Martines, who co-stars in the film, when he arrives in the States this week.

"When I shot this film, I told the crew and the cast I wanted it to be done as an American movie, as a film for an American audience. The Americans liberated us in 1945 and it was my way of thanking them. I still had in my head, the pictures of the liberation. . . . I was a 7-year-old boy at the time. It was important for me to say 'thanks.'

"The length and the subtitles do worry me a little," he adds. "But I am counting on the fact that people at least know the story of 'Les Miserables.' They are familiar with the musical, even though the story isn't treated the same way. If you love the story you want to see it told with and without music. I see these as being complementary."

Gerry Rich, head of marketing for MGM/UA and a former marketing executive at Miramax, sees parallels between the marketing of "Les Miserables" and "Like Water for Chocolate," a lavish, lengthy, critically acclaimed Spanish-language film that proved a winner in the U.S. for Miramax in 1993.

"Ultimately it was the word of mouth that sold that beautiful film," Rich says. "The way you build on that is you pick your markets and release in exclusive runs in those markets"--metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

"By virtue of it being subtitled is a tough sell alone. It is very difficult to do a TV campaign with a foreign-language movie, which makes it tougher because you hit such a wider audience with television," Rich notes. "But it can be done. You don't show the subtitles, per se, you show the action and the beautiful shots and you fill in with narrative. Then you back up your sell with the accolades and anoint it as a must-see.

"You do what you must because art house movies--and foreign films are art house movies--live and die by opening weekend."

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