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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Steve's version of Pink Panther got a facelift

Los Angeles Times
February 13, 2006 Monday
Home Edition
Business Desk; Part C; Pg. 1
Taming the New `Pink Panther';
Sony's decision to tone down sexual content in the remake pays off with top box office ranking.
Claudia Eller, Times Staff Writer

When Sony Pictures bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer last year, one of the films it inherited was a remake of "The Pink Panther," the classic Peter Sellers comedy.

The $80-million movie, starring Steve Martin as the famous French detective Jacques Clouseau, was already shot, edited and in the can. But everyone who saw it agreed it had a fatal flaw: Martin's character, who was a bumbling innocent in the 1964 film and its four sequels, came off more like a dirty old man.

In one scene, Inspector Clouseau -- determined to bed an international pop star played by Beyonce Knowles -- broke into a New York pharmacy and stole Viagra, which then visibly took effect under his clothes. In another, a woman knelt in front of Clouseau to measure him for new clothes. "You have quite a long in-seam," she said, sliding a tape measure up his thigh.

When "The Pink Panther" opened Friday, however, those bits were no longer there. That's because at the behest of Sony movie chief Amy Pascal, the studio spent about $5 million to re-shoot and reedit a number of scenes in the hopes of winning a PG rating.

"I saw a great family movie in the movie, but not everything was appropriate for a family audience," said Pascal, whom director Shawn Levy described as relentlessly blunt about the original film's shortcomings.

More than once, Levy said, when he showed Pascal changes he'd made to address her concerns, she replied, "You ain't done yet."

The revisions Pascal suggested, as well as a savvy marketing campaign that seeks to exploit Martin's popularity among kids weaned on his "Cheaper by the Dozen" films, among others, are being credited with helping turn this "Panther" from a potential stinker into the weekend's box-office leader.

Though facing stiff competition from the teen-friendly horror sequel "Final Destination 3," and to a lesser extent from the animated feature "Curious George," the return of the "Panther" series -- the first in more than a decade -- took in an estimated $21.7 million.

"We're thrilled," said Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution. "We were hoping for the widest possible audience, and the PG really gave us an advantage."

Exit polls showed that the movie drew families, adults without kids and a group the studio hadn't focused on: teens. By deciding "to play to our strengths and double down on adults, parents and kids," domestic marketing chief Valerie Van Galder said, the studio's campaign appealed both to young Martin fans and older moviegoers who remember the historic franchise.

The original "Pink Panther," directed by Blake Edwards, starred Sellers as a trench-coat-clad doofus whose obliviousness somehow never kept him from getting his man.

The first film and the several sequels that followed were hardly chaste. Edwards, who would go on to direct "10," among other films, had a ribald sensibility and a love of double entendre. But Sellers' Clouseau, whose thick French accent turned a simple word like "room" into an exercise in throat-clearing, was no cad. In romantic situations, as in investigative ones, he was simply clueless.

Martin's Clouseau, as conceived by the comedian himself when the project began at MGM, was more sexually provocative -- "a pompous lothario," according to Levy, the director. Martin co-wrote the script, and when it was shot, it was peppered with references to oral sex and erectile dysfunction.

Last spring, even before the ink was dry on billionaire Kirk Kerkorian's deal to sell MGM to a group of equity investors including Sony, the movie was screened for Pascal at MGM's headquarters. Already, MGM had tested the movie and found that audiences were uncomfortable with the new Clouseau, recalled MGM's former production chief Michael Nathanson.

Pascal, he remembered, didn't mince words. "Amy immediately saw the potential of the movie and wanted to enhance it," said Nathanson, who had already identified places the film needed help. "She had a very strong view to make Clouseau a more sympathetic, likable guy versus a lecherous, groping man."

At the same time, Pascal wanted the filmmakers to shoot additional scenes that would clarify some confusing plot twists and punch up the film with more broad physical humor, long a strong suit of Martin's.

Levy and the film's producer Bob Simonds -- who had both worked with Martin on the first "Cheaper by the Dozen" movie in 2003 -- acknowledged that the film wasn't working.

"Sometimes you end up with a feathered fish," said Simonds, a veteran of the comedy genre whose resume includes the Adam Sandler hits "The Wedding Singer," "Big Daddy" and "The Waterboy." "Audiences were laughing but they weren't going nuts -- it was like we had one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake."

So the filmmakers went back to work.

Out went the Viagra-stealing scene. Instead, a new riff was assembled from existing footage and added shots: Martin visits Beyonce at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, ducks into the bathroom and realizes his flaming cocktail has lighted his hair on fire. In the commotion, he loses an unidentified blue pill down the drain, the room becomes a blazing inferno and Martin ends up falling through the floor and landing behind the hotel's reservation desk.

Without missing a beat, he suavely asks for new towels to be sent to the room.

Many other once-sexually explicit elements were either excised or toned down. Still in the movie is a scene in which Clouseau's secretary (played by Emily Mortimer) asks him if he ever gets lonely.

"No, not really," he replies, adding in an apparent reference to either cyber-dating or cyber-porn: "Not since the Internet."

In another scene, Clouseau's partner (played by Jean Reno) walks in on what appears to be the Inspector humping Mortimer from behind. In fact, Clouseau is administering the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge an egg caught in her throat (when he succeeds, the egg pops out of her mouth and flies out the window, hitting a cyclist in the street below).

"We tried to render innuendos fleeting and vague enough that we as parents get one joke while our kids get another," said Levy, who admitted that the revisions -- and the resulting seven-month delay of the film's release -- were agonizing at times.

"Finishing a movie twice is the least fun part of the process," he said. But he acknowledged that before Pascal's intervention, the new "Panther" was "tonally ambiguous in that it was not clearly for families and it was not clearly for an adult audience.... The tinkering that Sony requested of me made the movie so much better."

In its marketing campaign, which cost more than $20 million, Sony aimed to appeal to Martin's young fan base by using many of the film's new slapstick-inspired scenes in television ads. For example, one ad shows an unwitting Clouseau falling down a subway entrance after trying to mask his identity by holding a newspaper so close to his face that he cannot see.

Van Galder, Sony's recently named domestic marketing chief, said the trick was to invoke the old Clouseau while also introducing him to young moviegoers who'd never seen him before.

"We needed to have Steve Martin step into the shoes of this classic comic character and brand him as Inspector Clouseau," she said. "He speaks to kids who love the physical comedy and adults who know and love the franchise."

Martin has been actively involved in promoting the movie. He not only appeared in character in a pop-up ad for and an in-theater spot pleading for patrons to turn off their cellphones, he also plugged the movie when he recently hosted "Saturday Night Live."

Van Galder acknowledged that the studio's biggest challenge was to attract teens and young adults, who flocked to the "Final Destination" sequel this weekend and drove it to an estimated $20.1 million in ticket sales. With that in mind, Sony bought spots on Teen Nick and MTV.

Van Galder also has high hopes that "A Woman Like Me," a song that Knowles sings on the soundtrack, will help build the film's cool factor. The song currently tops the nation's music charts, and her music video is in heavy rotation on MTV.

"Our secret weapon is Beyonce," Van Galder said on the eve of the film's opening.

With its premiere, the Knowles-Martin combination appears to have struck a bull's-eye. For Sony, which suffered a dismal 2005 at the box office, the turnabout is a relief. So far this year, each of Sony's three releases -- "Underworld Evolution," "When a Stranger Calls" and now "The Pink Panther" -- has won the weekend with more than $21 million in ticket sales.

"We're three for three," Blake said.


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