LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Heath Ledger's death leaves studio giants Warner Bros. facing a balancing act as they promote the actor's last film, the big-budget Batman sequel "The Dark Knight," industry analysts say.
Even before Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment on Tuesday, buzz had been building about the 28-year-old Australian actor's performance in the film, where he plays the caped crusader's arch-foe The Joker.
Early trailers and promotional posters for the movie show a gruesomely made-up Ledger, suggesting the Oscar-nominated star has taken the character of the comic-book villain in a groundbreaking new direction.
Analysts say the anticipation surrounding the movie -- due to be released in the United States in July -- is likely to intensify with fans morbidly curious to watch Ledger's posthumous final screen performance.
However, Ledger's death poses unique challenges for studio bosses as they try to market one of this summer's biggest releases without being seen to be attempting to cash in on the tragedy, analysts say.
Ledger's grinning, psychopathic portrayal of the Joker has formed the cornerstone of early marketing for "The Dark Knight."
But industry analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations said the actor's death would force Warner Bros to rethink their strategy.
"Warners are in a difficult position. Initially they wanted to capitalize on the early buzz that has surrounded Heath's performance," Bock told AFP. "Now they're going to have to do a 180 from that."
While the death of an actor before a film's release is not unknown, with famous examples being 1994's "The Crow", starring the late Brandon Lee, and 1956's "Giant", released a year after James Dean's death, the situation with "The Dark Knight" was unprecedented in the modern era, Bock said.
"This is something we've never seen before," he said. "On the one hand they have to pay tribute to Heath and the performance that he gives, but on the other hand this is going to be one of the biggest films of the summer.
"It is not a small arthouse film. With Batman you're talking about one of the top properties in Hollywood -- this is a franchise that has grossed 1.6 billion dollars worldwide in the first five films.
"You have to think that Warner Bros. will have to go back to square one in terms of how they market the film."
Lew Harris, editorial director of Movies.com, said studio chiefs were likely to remove Ledger's image from posters for the film, replacing him with pictures of Christian Bale, the lead actor who plays Batman.
"I think they have to take Heath Ledger's face off the posters," Harris told AFP. "I think the studio will be extremely sensitive and not want to be seen as trying to benefit from the tragedy in any way.
"It would be appalling to start seeing posters of Heath Ledger's Joker appearing on billboards or bus-stops."
Warner Bros. have not indicated what changes to the promptional campaign might be made as shocked executives continue to grapple with the news of Ledger's death.
However, Stuart Levine, assistant managing features editor at influential movie trade paper Variety said removing Ledger's image from the film's marketing would be an error.
"If this was the first 'Batman' film, you'd be interested in how Christian Bale plays Batman," Levine told AFP. "But in this you want to see how Heath Ledger plays the Joker.
"Certainly the little sneaks they've shown of him in the 'The Dark Knight' have been pretty inspiring. It kind of takes your breath away when you see his face like that.
"I would think it would be a mistake to take him away from the marketing campaign because in a morbid kind of way people want to see his performance because he's passed away, and because if you're a fan of the franchise you want to see how he plays the Joker."
An executive at a rival studio quoted by the Wall Street Journal agreed that it would be unwise to change the marketing strategy for the film.
"The best thing that could happen is that all this marketing stuff just goes on and the movie and the campaign don't turn into some kind of weird grave marker," he told the paper.
But Bock said "a sense of melancholy" would forever be associated with "The Dark Knight" regardless of how it was received at the box office.
"Obviously this is still going to be a big film but the stigma that surrounds it will always be one of mixed feelings," he said.
"The euphoric hype that envelops a summer film will be replaced with a sense of melancholy. Good or bad. That's just the way it's going to be."
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