Frank Spotnitz
June 17, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a good thing that Kevin Costner, who owns a casino in Deadwood, S.D., is a gambling man: The stakes for his $50 million, three-hour-plus Wyatt Earp couldn’t be higher.

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Grand Canyon), Warner Bros.’ Earp opens June 24, but it’s already been beaten to the punch by Disney’s Tombstone, a Christmas ’93 release starring Kurt Russell as the Western lawman that earned a surprisingly robust $56 million. The bitter feud between the dueling Earp pics goes back to early last year — when Costner’s representatives, Creative Artists Agency, allegedly urged such stars as Brad Pitt to steer clear of Tombstone — and this showdown ain’t over yet. Just two days before Earp bows in theaters, Disney will release the home video of Tombstone. Being first again ”may take a little starch out of Wyatt Earp,” says one gleeful Tombstone production source.

Warner Bros. isn’t taking this latest burst of gunfire lying down. Its all-out media blitz includes a coffee-table book of photographs from the Earp set, a paperback of the script and behind-the-scenes interviews, and a 30-minute infomercial airing on CBS featuring Costner, Dennis Quaid (who plays Doc Holliday), and Gene Hackman (as Earp’s father, Nicholas). The network will also air Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, a TV movie featuring the original Earp, Hugh O’Brian, and footage from the 1950s series.

Studio one-upmanship aside, the question remains: Will audiences pay to see the same story twice, no matter how sumptuously retold?

A source at Warner Bros. dismisses the concern, saying that comparing Tombstone with Earp is ”like comparing McDonald’s to a great restaurant.” There is a difference in scope, at least. ”Ours covers 35 years of the West, making it much more of an epic,” says Earp‘s producer, Jim Wilson. While Tombstone only dealt with events leading up to the O.K. Corral shoot-out, Earp follows the lawman from his secure youth in the Midwest, passes through his three marriages, and ends with his bloody showdown with the Clanton gang. ”Tombstone was sold to men,” says another Warner source. ”Wyatt Earp will sell to women. It will be the Doctor Zhivago of the Western genre.”

Yet the picture’s sprawl is precisely what concerns some exhibitors, who were underwhelmed at an advance screening in April of a nearly completed print. ”It seemed even longer than it was,” says one, ”and the editing was messy. It seemed as if the movie had been rushed.” (The studio had no comment.) Of course, the last time Costner starred in a three-hour-plus Western, the exhibitors weren’t thrilled, either. Their objections were soon forgotten when Dances With Wolves went on to gross $184 million and win seven Academy Awards.

Nor can anyone underestimate the box office power of Costner, who’s made a career out of confounding the odds. Both Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard managed to win audiences despite overwhelmingly negative critical responses. And though his most recent effort, A Perfect World, costarring Clint Eastwood, was a box office disappointment, Costner earned points for playing a bad guy with gusto. Ultimately, says a distribution exec at another studio, whether Earp guns down the competition ”comes down to whether it’s a good movie. Kevin will open it, but to keep it alive, it has to be good.”

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