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The Way Kubrick Would Have Wanted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The images, both sensual and mysterious, flash across the TV screen: Nicole Kidman unfastening an evening gown to reveal the curves of her naked back; a teenage Leelee Sobieski striking a pose in lingerie; a tormented Tom Cruise walking the streets of New York; a body lying in repose at the morgue; and the now familiar shot of Cruise, naked from the waist up, passionately kissing Kidman as she stares at herself in a mirror.

In two television spots, one accompanied by Chris Isaak singing “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” and another featuring pulsating piano music, Warner Bros. is cranking up its marketing campaign for “Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final film.

Whether it’s securing a cover of Time magazine, creating TV spots or even selecting the footage to offer show-biz programs such as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” the studio campaign is following the dictates of Kubrick. Though he died March 7 in his sleep in England, Kubrick continues to exert a powerful presence on key marketing decisions about his film.

“I think the whole idea from Stanley was to tantalize a little bit and a little bit and a little bit,” said Nancy Kirkpatrick, the studio’s spokeswoman for the film. “It’s a smart strategy; so dramatic. A little bit gives you a lot.”

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To avid moviegoers, the film’s July 16 debut will surely be one of the decade’s most anxiously anticipated arrivals, one whose ideas and performances will be debated long after its outcome at the box office is decided. But inside the film industry, some believe the studio still faces hurdles because of the film’s steamy subject matter, despite the inherent star appeal of Cruise and Kidman.

“I think they have a movie that is extremely adult, and they are stuck because they have one of the top stars in the world and have to be careful how they sell it,” said one industry insider. “The only thing more taboo in this world than violence is sex.”

Judging by the trailer and TV commercials, observers say “Eyes Wide Shut” has a ‘70s feel--though it’s set in contemporary Manhattan--with a tone and sensibility very different than most mainstream Hollywood movies these days. Normally, a film like that would require careful nurturing and getting critics behind it so that when it opens in medium and smaller towns, moviegoers would already know what’s coming.

But this is the late ‘90s, when star-driven movies are released on 2,000 to 3,000 screens and films live and die on their opening weekend. Besides, the studio--as per Kubrick’s instructions--isn’t screening the film for the press until a few days before it opens.

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“Back when Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was released, it was very much a small release and critically driven, and you got that key critic, like a Pauline Kael, and they helped sell the film,” one source said. “Today, I’m sure they’ll open this film on 2,500 screens. A Tom Cruise picture demands that. And it will play immediately in small towns across the country without critical weight behind it.”

Another Kubrick film, “The Shining,” opened on only 10 screens in 1980, grossing $622,337 over the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. By its fourth weekend, it had reached its widest run--752 screens.

What all this portends, say those who track box office, is that “Eyes Wide Shut” is something of a test case in marketing.

“They’re in a ‘90s world whether they like it or not, and the demand will be to open this movie in excess of $20 million right off the bat,” one source said. Anything lower, and it could be judged a failure before it has a chance to find its audience.

In marketing “Eyes Wide Shut,” the studio is walking a tightrope--selling a sexually provocative, R-rated art film that happens to star two of the world’s most recognizable actors while remaining true to Kubrick’s vision. And as the steamy--and even kinky--nature of Kubrick’s tale of jealousy and sexual obsession is revealed in public, the challenge faced by Warner Bros. becomes all the more evident.

Awareness High Among Moviegoers

Recent tracking shows that “Eyes Wide Shut” received a 78 awareness level--proof that moviegoers are definitely aware of the film--but it garnered only a 7 in the “first choice” category (double figures are desired), nowhere near the levels of this summer’s big hits, such as “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Big Daddy.”

“I don’t think they need to make a gigantic splash because people know this movie is coming out,” said Michael A. Vorhaus, managing director at Frank N. Magid Associates, a Los Angeles-based entertainment media and Internet research and consulting company. “Now, they have to convey enough of the story to get people who are borderline interested.

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“This movie has had a tremendous amount of buzz for months and months, so you have a movie that, in my opinion, is going to open strongly. You’re not going to have an ‘Austin Powers’ type of opening, but we are still looking at $20 million as a good opening.”

When the project began more than three years ago, it was Cruise alone who was the megastar, but recently Kidman has emerged as a major sex symbol, as evidenced by provocative covers for magazines such as Rolling Stone and her starring role in a steamy stage production, “The Blue Room,” in London and on Broadway.

Since its inception, Kubrick kept a tight lid on any information getting out about his film. Cruise and other actors were sworn to secrecy, and the screenplay was never circulated outside the director’s tight circle. Even studio officials were kept in the dark.

Kubrick shot the entire film in England over a period of 15 months. He died at age 70, only five days after Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the co-chairmen of Warner Bros., along with Cruise and Kidman, got their first chance to see the completed film at a private screening in New York.

The Saturday before he died, Kubrick held two to three hours of discussions with Semel, laying out his marketing strategy. It was Kubrick, for instance, who insisted that the first footage be shown to theater owners attending their annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas earlier this year. Kubrick’s production company, Hobby Films, beamed the film via satellite to conventioneers, allowing journalists around the world to pick it up. “We didn’t know about it until hours before it happened,” said studio spokeswoman Kirkpatrick.

Kubrick left instructions that the first TV commercial would be a 60-second spot, followed by a 30-second spot. Kubrick also insisted that press kits mailed to the media contain no production notes, which would have allowed the studio to put its spin on the movie.

The film, which co-stars Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson and Sobieski, was co-written by screenwriter Frederic Raphael and Kubrick himself. It was inspired by “Traumnovelle,” a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese playwright/physician and friend of Sigmund Freud.

Crossing the ‘White Line of Conjugal Correctness’

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Advance screenings of “Eyes Wide Shut” have been few, but Alexander Walker, a Kubrick biographer, was invited by the director’s family to attend an early showing of the film in England.

In his review, published in the London Evening Standard and picked up on the Internet, Walker revealed that Cruise and Kidman play Dr. William and Alice Harford, a rich and successful New York couple who, after attending a grand party where both have been tempted by potentially dangerous flirtations, go home and quiz each other about their past lovers.

“From erotic tenderness, signaled by his sensual caresses of her, their mutual questioning veers over the white line of conjugal correctness. Each finds out more than he or she wants to know about the other,” Walker wrote. The reviewer noted that in one scene set at a morgue, Cruise’s character will “kiss a dead woman and discover the taboo pleasure of necrophilia.”

While the review tossed a monkey wrench into the carefully choreographed timetable established by Kubrick for releasing information, it had no effect on the overall game plan.

“We’re really following Stanley’s plan before he died,” Kirkpatrick said.

Will it work? Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitors Relations Co., said there is tremendous public awareness of “Eyes Wide Shut.” The question is, will the public accept Cruise in an unfamiliar film genre?

“It’s not Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ” he explained. “It has to be handled very carefully. I think the reason they are walking a fine line is they feel that if they overdo it, they’ll ruin it. If Cruise and Kidman were not in this movie, it would be a tough sell.”


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