Bombs Away

Everyone was worried. Sony Pictures Entertainment moguls were camped out at Santa Barbara's swanky Biltmore Hotel. Honchos at Sony's Columbia Pictures unit were whispering about the names to be found in the "Hollywood Madam's" infamous black book of clients. The next day, the talk was more prosaic: Execs from Columbia's sister company, Tri-Star Pictures Inc., fretted over their brilliant, angst-ridden director whose real life sells better than his films.

The Madam will fade. But Woody Allen's problems likely won't. The 57-year-old filmmaker hasn't scored at the box office in years. Now, after months of legal tussling with longtime lover Mia Farrow amid charges of child abuse, Allen is a bona fide nightmare for marketers. Namely, for Tri-Star, which will bring Allen's latest work, Manhattan Murder Mystery, to theaters on Aug. 18.

LOSE THE MONEY. Publicly, Tri-Star, which paid an estimated $20 million to make Mystery and another $5 million for promotion, is playing it cool. It's only making 250 prints of the film, less than a third the number it released of Allen's 1992 Husbands and Wives. But "we are presenting this film in a traditional way for all Woody Allen films," says Buffy Shutt, president of marketing.

The thing is, traditional hasn't been working so well. Since his 1986 hit, Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen's films have grown darker and their ticket sales weaker (chart). Last year, Husbands and Wives, released just as his legal battle with Farrow began to heat up, lost an estimated $10 million. "His films have always had a small audience of mostly urban intellectuals," says box office follower John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. "And now he's losing a lot of them as well."

That's one reason, say Hollywood insiders, that Tri-Star released Allen in July from his obligation to make the last of three films in his contract. Allen will make future movies with former Saturday Night Live producer Jean Doumanian. Both sides say they parted on friendly terms. Tri-Star could still distribute Allen's films, a company spokesman is quick to point out, and Tri-Star Chairman Michael Medavoy remains an Allen loyalist. But rival executives say Tri-Star had tired of Allen's poor box-office showing, and Woody was miffed at what he saw as Tri-Star's ineffectual marketing of Husbands and Wives.

In the meantime, though, Tri-Star has one last film to sell. And that presents quite a marketing challenge, given that trailers of Mystery provoke snickers, whispers, and a few hisses.

What to do? Tri-Star has started sneak previews of the film weeks ahead of time, placing it at multiplexes alongside The Firm and The Fugitive in hopes of siphoning off crowds that couldn't get into those sold-out shows.

It is also keeping Allen off American television, which he hates anyway, and is offering up co-star Diane Keaton for the obligatory New York Times interviews. Allen, who faced a particularly nasty barrage from New York reporters for months, instead did interviews with friendlier writers for Chicago papers. He may give TV interviews in Europe. Tri-Star's marketing team also will trot out co-star Anjelica Huston. Riding a modest wave of popularity based on her last film, The Addams Family, Huston will appear on Good Morning America and probably The Tonight Show.

For the most part, however, Tri-Star will just cross its fingers. One thing the studio has going for it may be the film itself. Mystery, the story of an amateur sleuth's attempt to solve a murder case, is both a return to Allen's earlier filmmaking and far funnier than his recent fare. Plus, the summer box office is bustling, with total ticket sales about 24% ahead of last year. The timing is not at all bad for a skinny comedian with crummy karma. But the guys at Tri-Star still are nervous.

      The relatively anemic box-office sales        Revenue
      of Woody Allen's recent films                 Millions
      HANNAH AND HER SISTERS                       $40.1
      RADIO DAYS                                    14.7
      SEPTEMBER                                      0.4
      CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS                       18.0
      SHADOWS AND FOG                                2.7
      HUSBANDS AND WIVES                            10.1
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