January 23, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s a marketing executive’s nightmare: you’ve got a major motion picture opening and your star’s wearing the wrong wardrobe for your press junket. Instead of something chic and understated, he’s dressed in…prison stripes.

That’s the absurd but still troubling situation currently facing several studios. Paramount will release Hard Rain, a $70 million heist movie starring Christian Slater (see review on page 39), Jan. 16 — two days after Slater is scheduled to begin serving 90 days in jail on charges stemming from his cocaine-fueled rampage last August. While Slater was able to fulfill many of his promotional duties before doing time (by taping interviews about the film), ”obviously, it would have been nice to have him on the talk-show circuit,” says producer Mark Gordon. ”But I think the public will be predisposed positively toward him.” As for the irony of an action hero headed to jail, Gordon shrugs: ”I’m sure some people will make wiseass comments.”

Another star who won’t be making promotional stops: Robert Downey Jr., who’s serving a 180-day sentence at the L.A. County jail (for violating probation with drugs) will still be incarcerated when PolyGram’s $25 million The Gingerbread Man opens Jan. 23 in New York and L.A. (see review on page 38), as well as when Fox Searchlight’s low-budget Two Girls and a Guy debuts March 27. While Downey has only a supporting role in Gingerbread, he’s the lead Guy — yet Fox Searchlight professes indifference. ”Audiences that see indie fare don’t care if a Robert Downey Jr. or a Hugh Grant did something that wasn’t particularly right,” says David Dinerstein, the studio’s marketing head.

That may be true for adult audiences, but what about someone like Eddie Murphy? He’s in no legal trouble, but the actor raised the suspicion of bad-boy behavior when police stopped him last May after he gave a ride to a gender-bending prostitute. Not only is Murphy starring in this summer’s Dr. Dolittle from Fox, it’s a $70 million children’s movie. But industry execs seem unworried. ”The Eddie thing is over. It’s yesterday’s news,” says a production chief at a rival studio.

But the final verdict on this tabloid trio won’t be in until the issue reaches Hollywood’s highest court: the box office.

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