It was born a low-budget exploitation film. It grew to be the most expensive movie ever made. Now it faces some of the worst pre-release media coverage in Hollywood history.

''Waterworld,'' starring Kevin Costner, has traversed a torturous path to the screen, but its most difficult challenge -- winning over a suspicious audience -- is yet to come.

Rival studio executives say ''Waterworld'' will have to gross nearly $150 million at theaters in the United States to be on track to break even when worldwide, video, and TV sales are totaled. Only a handful of releases pass that threshold, however, and ''Waterworld'' must compete with highly anticipated summer titles, including ''Batman'' and ''Die Hard'' sequels.

The $175 million ''Waterworld'' springs from the humblest of origins -- producer Roger Corman's exploitation house, Concorde Films. In his heyday, Corman helped launch the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme.

In the late 1980s, another aspiring movie director named Peter Rader arrived at Concorde. He pitched production president Brad Krevoy several derivative movie ideas, wanting to clone ''Mad Max,'' a 1979 post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson drama. Mr. Krevoy didn't like Rader's variations, telling him to dream up another idea for a $1-million feature.

''He came back one day later and said, 'I have a great idea: ''Mad Max'' on the water,''' Krevoy recalls. ''And I said, 'There's no way we can afford that movie -- it will cost at least $5 million. Why don't you set it on ice?' ''

Mr. Rader declined to freeze his movie's setting, and ''Waterworld'' moved forward. It was eventually given the green light by Universal Pictures at a budget close to $100 million.

Just as Krevoy predicted, filming underwater was either difficult or impossible. ''Waterworld'' ran behind schedule, weather was poor, Costner's stunt double suffered a diving accident, crew members quit mid-production, and a small set sank in more than 100 feet of water. In late April, director Kevin Reynolds left the film.

Thanks to all the negative publicity, ''Waterworld'' will now be held to a higher standard when it debuts, marketing experts say. The movie is scheduled to premiere in the United States on July 28.

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