`Midsummer' Tests Fans Love of Bard

By MICHAEL FLEEMAN (AP Entertainment Writer)

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Shakespeare is hotter than ever in Hollywood. Now the Bard faces two new celebrity challenges: opening a movie in the shadow of ``Star Wars'' _ and selling spaghetti sauce.

``William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream'' opens today with a big release schedule, big stars, big soundtrack and a big marketing campaign that includes a promotional deal with Classico Pasta Sauce.

All that isn't big is the movie's budget _ $14 million _ a bargain considering the top name talent in Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart, who all worked cheaply for a chance to flex their acting muscles.

Still, filming one of Shakespeare's plays largely as written is far from a sure bet for a studio. The two bigger successes are the Kenneth Branagh-directed ``Much Ado About Nothing'' in 1993 and ``Hamlet,'' starring Mel Gibson, in 1990. And each only barely topped $20 million.

What's more, Fox Searchlight Pictures is releasing ``Midsummer'' just days before the opening of the heavily hyped ``Star Wars'' prequel.

``It's a risk,'' acknowledges Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is releasing the movie on 1,000 screens _ 150 more than its biggest success to date, ``The Full Monty.''

``If no one shows up, I'm in trouble,'' he said.

But then, this film has some advantages, particularly timing, thanks to ``Shakespeare in Love,'' which won seven Oscars and grossed more than $94 million in North America.

``Shakespeare in Love,'' a fictional portrait of the playwright, drew only some scenes and language from his works. But it served as a perfect introduction to the power of his writing and helped adjust the ear to the high language that so often throws off modern movie-goers.

``Shakespeare is no longer some onerous name at the top of a curriculum that kids look at and say, 'I've got to read this?''' Kline said. ``He's now this attractive young English guy who falls madly in love with Gwyneth Paltrow.''

Getting Flockhart for her first big movie role was one of the many casting coups for director-writer-co-producer Michael Hoffman. It was luck: She was signed to play lovelorn Helena before the success of ``Ally McBeal.''

The rest of the cast _ including Pfeiffer as the fairy queen Tatania, Everett as the fairy king Oberon, Stanley Tucci as Puck, Anna Friel as Hermia and Christian Bale as Demetrius _ worked for low wages to keep the project on budget.

``That's Shakespeare,'' Hoffman said. ``It ends up being the ultimate challenge and the ultimate reward for the actor.''

The relatively low budget means that Searchlight doesn't need ``Shakespeare in Love'' numbers to break even. In addition, the studio has hedged its bets by striking promotional deals, a common practice for big-studio movies but almost unheard-of for a specialty film.

Max Factor created a line of ``Midsummer'' cosmetics, then pushed it with a national advertising campaign. Classico Pasta Sauce is sponsoring a sweepstakes promotion and putting out a cookbook ``inspired by the film.''

And the film's soundtrack, featuring performances by opera stars, debuted in the Top 10 on the classical charts.

All that's left is the movie, which opens on a relatively slow weekend as most of Hollywood takes cover before next Wednesday's invasion of ``The Phantom Menace,'' being released by Searchlight's parent company, 20th Century Fox.

``It's a very good date for us,'' Law said. ``There's not anything opening over the weekend, and the entire country can't fit into 'Star Wars' the first week. Parents can drop their kids off at 'Star Wars' and come into our theaters.''