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And for Warner Bros., Santa Claus left a lump of coal.

It's been that kind of year for the Hollywood studio: a year marked with high-profile disappointments, critical flops and precious little good news. (R.I.P.: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mad City, Father's Day, Steel, Wild America.)

And what does Warner Bros. look to this holiday weekend to pull it out of a months-old box-office slump? The Postman. (Somebody light a candle.)

Kevin Costner's post-apocalyptic epic about a, well, mail carrier isn't exactly what you'd call money in the bank. It's been the favorite target of supposedly all-knowing conventional-wisdom watchers for months.

Snide wags have dubbed it Dirtworld, drawing (unfavorable) comparison to Costner's last costly and dubious epic, Waterworld.

An early review this week from USA Today didn't brighten its prospects: "It's too much of an oddball to out-and-out dislike, but don't even think that it's worth your 32 cents."


It should come as no surprise then that the mood on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, was described as that of "a funeral parlor," in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

"Why would morale be good?" asked Bob Daly, cohead of Warners' film division, in the Times. "People here are conscientious and care about what's going on. I tell them to put their heads down, work on marketing, make the movies better and get some hits--that's when the morale gets better."

Daly has headed up Warners Bros. with partner Terry Semel for a remarkable 18 years. But lately the words "embattled" and "beleaguered" are just as likely to be linked to their names as "remarkable."

Heads are already rolling. On December 9, Daly and Semel canned their movie marketing chief, Chris Pula, who later complained he was made a scapegoat.

And now star salaries are getting the once- and twice-over. Warners executives are said to be "livid" that Kurt Russell was signed to star in its upcoming Soldier for a Schwarzenegger-esque $20 million, according to this week's New York Daily News.

In a recent column, Daily Variety editor Peter Bart placed the studio's problems on that very reliance on big-budget movies built around megastars.

Indeed, Warners saw even its rare $100 million success (Batman & Robin and Contact, included) muted by the excessive costs involved in getting those stories to the screen.

If The Postman, which opened Christmas Day, can't turn things around, the company will have to wait until next month to extract some satisfaction from 1997. (That's when the Oscar nominations are announced--Warners' L.A. Confidential is expected to be among top contenders.)