When Tragedy Strikes a Hollywood Comedy

For each of his last four movies, director Wes Anderson has had one secret weapon in his pocket: his co-writer, star and friend, Owen Wilson. Starting with "Bottle Rocket" in 1996, which Wilson wrote and Anderson directed, and continuing through "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," the team is reliably hilarious. They've even fine-tuned the art of selling their movies to the public. They'll often attend press junkets together, charming journalists by finishing each other's jokes.

But the latest news surrounding Wilson is no laughing matter. Wilson was rushed to a hospital by ambulance over the weekend under mysterious circumstances. The Internet started buzzing that Wilson had attempted suicide, with unnamed sources coming forward to say he had cut his wrist (or wrists), and a recent Los Angeles police log shows that the authorities were indeed sent to Wilson's house in the middle of the night in response to an attempted suicide call. Wilson's publicist neither denied nor confirmed the allegations. "I respectfully ask that the media allow me to receive care and heal in private during this difficult time," the actor said in a statement, adding that he's doing fine now.

Unfortunately for Wilson, the troubling reports come just a month before his new movie with Anderson, "The Darjeeling Limited," is scheduled to open in limited release. Of course, the studio, Fox, was counting on Wilson to help sell the film. (Fox didn't return calls for an interview request.) Now they're stuck with an awkward situation: If Wilson skips the normal pre-opening publicity duties, journalists will likely become obsessed with his condition—and virtually ignore the movie itself. If he does submit to interviews, journalists will likely become obsessed with his condition—and virtually ignore the movie itself. "This is going to have a tremendous impact on the film's marketing," says Chris Thilk, who covers movie marketing on the Movie Marketing Madness blog. "If you take Wilson out of the mix, it's not just the loss of a leading man, it would severely impact the movie's brand identity."

No one would blame Wilson if he made himself invisible. "I think the first thing he's got to do is heal," says celebrity publicist Howard Bragman. But his absence could well impact the movie's success. Wilson is the most serious example in a string of actors this year who have been sidelined from junkets for scandals—forcing studios to sell their movies without their stars. In July, Lindsay Lohan had to cancel all interviews for the dud thriller "I Know Who Killed Me" because she was charged with drunken driving and alleged cocaine possession. The film tanked in theaters; its box office take: $7.2 million. In May, Kim Basinger declined to do any press for the heist flick "Even Money" because of the hullabaloo surrounding a leaked phone message in which her ex-husband Alec Baldwin screams at their daughter, Ireland. The movie was one of the worst performers of the year, with only $64,458 in ticket sales.

Sometimes, though, some clever publicity maneuvering can help a movie's gross. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" took home $186 million in 2005, personal bests for both its stars, partly because people wanted to see what kind of chemistry Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had together. Ditto for "The Break Up," Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston's movie ($119 million). More recently, this summer "The Waitress," starring Keri Russell, became one of the breakout independent films of the year, helped because so many journalists wrote stories about the tragic murder of its writer/director/costar, Adrienne Shelly. (It also helped that it was such a sweet, lovely film.) If Wilson wants to do an interview, Bragman suggests that he give one only to a high-profile TV outlet like the "Today" show. Wilson could then dismiss other journalists' questions by telling them he's already addressed the issue and wants to move on.