D'Works/Par seeks perfect pitch for 'Todd'

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NEW YORK -- The Stephen Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd" tells the morally complex story of a wronged barber who takes a bloody knife to patrons of his London shop.

But it's nothing compared with the complexity faced by DreamWorks/Paramount in releasing the R-rated musical.

"This has many niche audiences that need to be dealt with, and they don't really cross," said Terry Press, the marketing guru who is consulting on the film for DreamWorks. "There are 'Sweeney Todd' freaks, there's a sophisticated theatergoer crowd, there are the Tim Burton fans, and there are the young girls who love Johnny Depp. It's like threading many needles."

On top of that there's this prickly issue: The movie isn't done yet.

Burton said in an interview Wednesday that sound and visuals are still being mixed. "Probably about two weeks," he said. "I hope."

Still, the studio took the wraps off the Burton-Depp collaboration Wednesday night at a Film Society of Lincoln Center event in New York -- a venue whose appeal lies squarely with the theater crowd -- bringing out Burton to talk up the process of directing a musical and showing 20 minutes of footage including several Depp musical numbers for the first time in North America.

Outside of a Venice Film Festival event, it was the first public unspooling of the film, which has been the subject of a quiet, even stealth campaign since being put on the calendar for a December release. There have been the occasional peeks -- posters at Comic-Con International, a feature in Entertainment Weekly -- but for a movie going wide in five weeks, the rollout has been unusually low-key.

If the studio has been cautious, it's because "Todd" must balance some unwieldy trays.

As a blood-spattered, tragic story told partly in song, it must avoid looking like too much of a songfest so as not to put off Burton fans. But it also must stop shy of seeming too dark and turning off the musical crowd -- all while appeasing voluble "Todd"-heads, who on fan sites have for months parsed every note that may or may not survive the transition to the big screen.

In other words, the stylish gore has to come in equal proportion to the music.

"All these things that could be described as difficulties could also be the movie's greatest strengths," said Walter Parkes, a producer on "Todd." "But it's a challenge, no doubt."

Those challenges has been evident in several aspects of the movie's production and marketing. Instead of playing musical numbers over dialogue-free images, a trailer features only a few seconds of music, delineating story instead.

The questions about how to release the movie are reflected in a two-headed approach that's tried to keep a lid on hype while still aiming big at the boxoffice.

Heartened by Depp's bankability, the studio in August reversed a plan to platform the movie and decided to open on as many as 700 or 800 screens the weekend before Christmas.

But at the same time, lurking behind the DreamWorks campaign is the studio's push for another (admittedly very different) musical last year: "Dreamgirls."

Footage for that film was screened six months ahead of release at May's Festival de Cannes, and awards talk began pretty much at the start of the season. According to some observers, the movie peaked too soon, and AMPAS looked elsewhere for best picture.

So "Todd" is taking an approach more akin to Warners' tack with "The Departed" last year: keeping the early exposure limited and discouraging preliminary awards talk. (Warners actually is handling the international release of "Todd.")

Of course, the fact that the movie isn't finished also has something to do with the quiet rollout -- "a mix of circumstance and intention," in one insider's description.

Still, the quiet hasn't stopped blogs from drawing hard-core Sondheim fans -- the kind who "really want an image of Betsy Joslyn from the 1982 DVD" -- wringing their hands with lines like, "I wonder what great songs they're going to cut from this movie."

A few posts down came a reaction that may encapsulate the DreamWorks challenge more succinctly: "Whoa, wait -- this is a musical?"
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