After Weak ‘Flags’ Debut, Studio May Face Costly Oscar Battle

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Clint Eastwood’s World War II movie “Flags of Our Fathers” lumbered ashore this weekend weighted with the expectations of a studio needing to win big. Looking for Oscars and a payoff on the film’s $90 million budget, Paramount, its distributor, put the film in nearly 1,900 theaters, and still plans to add hundreds more as early as this week.

By Monday morning, however, the studio and its partners found themselves facing a costly fight to save their showcase awards entry, as “Flags” took in just $10.2 million at the box office — a relatively tiny beachhead that did not match expectations or its mostly strong reviews. The picture had failed to excite enough older viewers who could remember, readily identify or relate to its subject, the bloody battle for Iwo Jima, to make up for its lack of appeal to younger audiences and paucity of recognizable stars.

For Paramount, which inherited the movie when it bought DreamWorks last year, the combination of a weak opening and good reviews made for a problem that has become all too familiar to major studios offering big dramas at awards time: it now will have to mount a costly Oscar campaign, but it hasn’t yet made the money to pay for it.

The fate of “Flags” in the moviegoing marketplace could also provide the clearest test yet of the DreamWorks-Paramount marriage. The movie’s marketing is being run by Terry Press of DreamWorks, overseeing a Paramount team, and its distribution is being overseen by Rob Moore, a top colonel to Brad Grey, Paramount’s chairman, relying on a staff of former DreamWorks employees. To complicate things further, Warner Brothers, which helped finance the film, holds international distribution rights, and is expected to release a companion movie depicting the battle from the Japanese point of view early next year.

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