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Hunt for Phantom Profits

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 3, 2004 | Publication: Wall Street Journal | Author: JONATHAN B. WEINBACH

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Film Version of Webber Show
Courts Prickly 'Phans';
Making Like Hit 'Chicago'

Janna Lapenter has seen "The Phantom of the Opera " on stage nearly 20 times and estimates she has spent nearly $10,000 on memorabilia related to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. She's such a committed fan, in fact, that she has five "Phantom" tattoos -- including one on her neck, in Japanese.
So the 25-year-old graphic-design student in New Jersey has some pretty high expectations for the soon-to-be-released "Phantom" film. "I hope it's worth the wait," she says.

Cue the crashing chandelier. After 15 years of false starts, the movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera " will open Dec. 22. For the film's U.S. distributor, Warner Bros., the Lloyd Webber musical's legions of fans -- "Phans," as they call themselves -- pose an unusual marketing challenge. The task: to harness the support of Phantom Nation -- after all, nearly 80 million people have seen "Phantom" since its 1986 debut -- and at the same time, attract a broader audience during the ultracompetitive Christmas movie season.

While Hollywood regularly taps old subjects -- comic books, television series -- for new movies, "Phantom" is a bit different from other pop-culture hits adapted for the big screen. For one thing, it's a musical, a film genre with a rocky recent history despite the success of "Chicago," which won a Best Picture Oscar in 2003. For another, the cast is short on A-list stars who may appeal to Hollywood's core audience of young moviegoers: Minnie Driver has a featured supporting role, but the Phantom is played by Scottish actor Gerard Butler, whose biggest previous role was in last year's "Lara Croft" sequel. Teenager Emmy Rossum plays Christine, his love interest.
There's even a small but vocal faction of fans convinced that the new $70 million film will tarnish the stage show's legacy. Jane Woodside, a 58-year-old retired state Republican Party staffer from Millersburg, Pa., has seen the stage musical more than 20 times, but plans to boycott the film because Director Joel Schumacher cast Mr. Butler as the Phantom -- and not Michael Crawford, the 62-year-old British actor who made the title role famous on stage. "That performance was so extraordinary, to not use it is a tragedy," she says.

'Key to Get the Fans'
Nevertheless, the studio and composer Lord Lloyd-Webber -- who is also the film's primary backer -- plan to utilize the enthusiasm of "Phantom" buffs to build momentum ahead of the film's opening. "It's absolutely key to get the fans," says Executive Producer Austin Shaw, who heads the film division of Lord Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group.

To that end, Warner Bros. and Really Useful Group took out early advertising spots in Playbill and Performance magazines, hoping to entice theatergoers. They courted fans online -- where legions of them long have maintained "Phantom" sites and chat boards -- with an official movie site that has been up for months and offers a message board, preview clips and songs from the new movie. (The filmmakers also point out that the 143-minute film's story line closely follows that of the stage show, including the trademark chandelier crash.) Warner sought input as well from devotees of the show: In a late September screening in Denver, half the viewers had already seen the musical. (Phans and non-Phans liked it equally, Warner says.)
The filmmakers are hoping dedicated fans will help create buzz. Following the lead of "Chicago," it will open to a limited release -- 600 screens, compared with a typical wide release of 2,000 or more -- many in cities or college towns where the stage show has appeared. The filmmakers hope that with fewer screens, they'll snare more Phans per showing -- and boost the movie's per-screen average gross during its opening week, a vital statistic for any film that opens in limited release. "We believe that strong word-of-mouth will really give us momentum," says Dawn Taubin, Warner's president of theatrical marketing.

Original Plans Fizzled
A film version of "Phantom" -- the story of a young opera star stalked by a tormented figure living in the shadowy foundations of Paris's opera house -- has been as elusive as its mysterious title character. After scoring his stage hit, Lord Lloyd-Webber approached Mr. Schumacher in 1989 with a plan to feature original-cast stars Mr. Crawford and Sarah Brightman. That plan fizzled, complicated in part by the composer's divorce from Ms. Brightman.
Efforts to revive the project weren't helped by the 1996 film of the Lloyd Webber musical "Evita," which flopped despite a cast that included Madonna and Antonio Banderas. Finally, in 2002, the composer bought the "Phantom" film rights back from Warner Bros. -- which remains its distributor -- and again offered the job to Mr. Schumacher. The 65-year-old film director had one condition: The cast had to be "very young, extremely beautiful and very sexy," he says. "When someone asks for your vision, you have to be honest," Mr. Schumacher adds. "And you have to deliver."

So out went Mr. Crawford and in went Mr. Butler (age 35) as the Phantom and Ms. Rossum (18) as Christine Daae, the singer he romances. (Mr. Crawford, who is currently starring in the new Lloyd Webber musical "The Woman in White" in London, couldn't be reached for comment.)

As for Warner, which now has little financial stake in the film, it's looking to "Phantom" for Oscars. The studio is just coming off disappointing openings for two hugely expensive holiday films: "Alexander" and "The Polar Express," both of which cost well over $100 million and aren't likely to get much attention come the Academy Awards. "Phantom" is "an important movie for Warner Bros. -- it always has been," says Warner's Ms. Taubin. And early reaction to the film has been good.
Meanwhile, the Phans are getting ready. Sandra Horyski, a 39-year-old accountant in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is so excited about the movie's debut that she wrote a song titled, "The Man, the Phantom Behind the Music." She copyrighted the lyrics and posted them on a Web site. "I heard through an e-mail that [Mr. Butler has] seen a copy of the song," she says. Her wish for Christmas? To attend the movie's premiere in New York. "What a day that would be," she says.


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