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NYT Kicks Flags of Our Fathers Opening

Flagsvista Beware the voices of Oscar season: if you aren't careful, you will be spun. The NYT fell into a classic trap today with its post-mortem on the weak opening weekend of Flags of Our Fathers. As the LAT's Patrick Goldstein notes, there are many ways to skin an Oscar campaign, from April openings like Crash to summer hits like Erin Brockovich to the standard fall Oscar wannabe. October is by no means a month reserved for horror movies—The Departed and The Prestige are doing great business, among other things. But it is the time of year when Oscar campaigners divebomb their prospective rivals in order to weaken and remove them from the race. One tip for Paramount exec Rob Moore: it's not a great idea to blame your movie star director for the weak boxoffice of your movie. No matter what Eastwood said or did, the studio has to take responsibility for how the movie performs. Here's some of the NYT piece:

But the movie posed several marketing challenges that Mr. Eastwood’s last two films did not face. Unlike Mr. Spielberg, who cast Tom Hanks in “Private Ryan,” Mr. Eastwood wanted to give a sense of the youth and ordinariness of the marines who fought at Iwo Jima, so he deliberately avoided casting major stars. Ryan Phillippe is the biggest name in “Flags,” though hardly a household one. Some critics even wrote that the movie’s characters were almost indistinguishable in the mayhem of battle.

As Mr. Moore summed up: “The biggest draw of the movie is its director, who’s not in the movie.”

Some industry insiders also questioned the timing of the film’s release in late October — a time when audiences are mainly young and mainly interested in Halloween fare like next weekend’s release of “Saw III” — rather than closer to Thanksgiving, when audiences have been conditioned to expect more adult-themed movies with awards potential.

But Mr. Moore said the timing was nearly identical to that of “Mystic River,” which opened in mid-October 2003 in a platform release of 13 theaters before expanding to 1,467 theaters a week later. Any thought of a similar platform release a week or two ago was dropped, lest “Flags” go up against Martin Scorsese’s “Departed,” Mr. Moore said. But he and other executives said the calendar ahead looked forgiving, with youth-oriented movies like the “Saw” sequel and “Borat,” and family fare like DreamWorks’ and Paramount’s own “Flushed Away” on Nov. 3.

Counting on that window of opportunity, Mr. Moore said Monday morning that Paramount, DreamWorks and Mr. Eastwood had agreed to expand by 300 screens nationwide this week. He cited the movie’s reviews, as well as exit polls of audience members that were 50 percent better than average — a sure gauge of word of mouth, he said.

Robert Lorenz, Mr. Eastwood’s longtime producer, said the opening weekend box office, while lower than some projections, was not disappointing at all. “It’s on track with what Clint’s movies have done in the past,” he said.

Executives like Mr. Moore said they were counting on the many fans of Mr. Eastwood’s dramatic and darker recent movies to show up as they always seem to — in their own good time. “They come out slower,” he said. “Therefore, we roll out slower.”

And Ms. Press, of DreamWorks, said that the film’s reviews held out hopes that, once the movie made it to December, it could wind up on the year’s-best lists and start piling up the kind of accolades that might prompt moviegoers to give it another look.

“When you have that level of respect, you have to go the distance here,” Ms. Press of DreamWorks said, referring to Mr. Eastwood. “There is no other choice for a movie like this but to go the distance.”

Flags of Our Fathers did not necessarily have a disastrous opening. It's too early to call that. Besides, Flags of Our Fathers has a long way to go —it must hang in for months if it's to be an Oscar contender. Its reviews were stellar. And stories like this will only deepen industry support for popular Clint Eastwood. This could generate a sympathetic backlash not unlike last year's Munich.

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