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SELLING A PRE-OWNED STAR VEHICLE

Richard Natale is an occasional contributor to Calendar

So many noteworthy movies (not just schlock) are released and vanish from theaters so quickly that the question of what became of them is not a moot one. Many disappear into a kind of limbo and at some point thereafter resurface on video and cable.

But it’s almost unheard of for such a film to be reissued theatrically. Then again, the story of how “A Chorus of Disapproval” vanished from sight after an aborted run in U.S. theaters in 1989 and its imminent reemergence eight years later (in late February in major cities, including Los Angeles), contains as much bittersweet comedy and unexpected plot turns as the film itself.

It all began with Alan Ayckborn, the noted British playwright, whose acclaimed play “A Chorus of Disapproval” starring Michael Gambon premiered at England’s National Theater in the mid-'80s.

Director Michael Winner (“Death Wish”) was enchanted by the wry tale of a seaside British amateur theatrical troupe and acquired the rights soon thereafter. Producer Menahem Golan (of the former Cannon Films) agreed to finance it, announcing it proudly in trade ads.

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“Then he actually went to see the play and absolutely hated it,” Winner says with a laugh.

Enter Andre Blay, home video pioneer, and Elliott Kastner, former agent and producer (“Angel Heart”). They had just gone into partnership and formed Palisades Entertainment and agreed to front the $4 million to finance the first (and ultimately last) film in their stormy union, provided that Winner delivered some names.

He did: For the two male leads, he secured Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins, neither of whom had yet won an Oscar. The supporting cast was shored up by some reliable British talent, including Prunella Scales, Patsy Kensit and Sylvia Syms. All worked for less than their usual salaries. Winner received no recompense.

“I only met Blay once,” Winner recalls. “He said to me, ‘Everyone says Elliott is difficult. But I’m having a wonderful time so far.’ ” Winner had worked for Kastner before on the film “The Nightcomers,” starring Marlon Brando. He just waited for the other shoe to drop. “By the time we were shooting, it was very clear that the [expletive] had hit the fan. I had to fight and scream to get the money sent over [to pay the film’s expenses]. But it came.”

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Kastner and Blay (who, despite several attempts by The Times, could not be reached for comment) showed the completed film to the major studios. A release would have been possible, Kastner says, “but they didn’t like it well enough to get me my money back.”

Instead, he went to a new distributor, South Gate Films, and the film opened in exclusive runs in four major cities, garnering mostly good reviews (one notable exception was the L.A. Times, which praised the actors but criticized the “hacked-up” direction) and grossing about $200,000 in a couple of weeks.

Then disaster. South Gate went bankrupt, and Kastner and Blay had “a major train wreck,” according to Kastner, who sued his former partner for the assets of the company and sued the distributor for not living up to the distribution agreement.

Cut to 1996. Kastner won his litigation against South Gate and Blay, securing all the assets of Palisades, including “A Chorus of Disapproval” (which has been released abroad). The film was languishing on a shelf and would still be there had it not been for Dennis Christen, who was starting a theatrical distribution company, Theafilm, and wanted “Chorus” as its first release.

Despite being once burned, Kastner was not twice shy. “What do I have to lose?” he says. “It just may catch people’s fancy.”

For his part, Christen and his head of marketing, Denise Battaglia, were looking for a high-profile (read: star names) film to test their “alternative” distribution system. Having two Oscar winners who are bigger stars today than they were when the film was made and a property by a celebrated playwright like Ayckborn (who also did the script), was as good a place as any to start.

“The film’s checkered past is even an advantage for us,” says Battaglia. “Because it did such good business in only four markets on a total of six screens, we know it has potential.”

Rather than collecting a portion of the box-office receipts, Theafilm is contracting with exhibitors to rent the movie.

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“They pay us a lease fee and get to keep 100% of the receipts up to a particular ceiling,” Christen says. Theafilm plans to open the movie in about a dozen “upscale” markets, starting on Feb. 28, buoyed by promotional campaigns in each area. Testing the system is important for Theafilm, which will go out later this year with its first wide release, “James Dean: Race With Destiny,” the first of competing Dean biographies and one sanctioned by the legendary actor’s estate. It stars newcomer Casper Van Diem, who is also appearing in Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming epic, “Starship Troopers.”

Winner is philosophical about the latest turn of events on “Chorus.” Even if it is well-reviewed, he says, “that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will go to see it.” And even if business is brisk, he will probably never see his deferred salary. “You know--the accounting. It’s always so odd.”


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