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Hollywood's little secret: movie purgatory

Sometimes, studios change their minds about releasing a movie, even if it has already been completed. Films with big stars such as Matt Damon, John Cusack, Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson have all been there.

October 23, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • 'CASE 39': Even though Renee Zellweger starred, the horror movie spent time in limbo before being released. It was shot in 2006.
'CASE 39': Even though Renee Zellweger starred, the horror… (Paramount Pictures )

If you caught Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper in their new supernatural horror movie "Case 39," you may have observed that the stars look younger than you might have expected.

Although "Case 39" was released in the U.S just three weeks ago, Cooper and Zellweger began shooting the film in the fall of 2006 — so long ago a young senator named Barack Obama was still nearly six months from announcing his run for the presidency and Facebook was just opening to the general public.

In the years since, Cooper has gone from a supporting actor on television's "Alias" to the top of the Hollywood heap. But he was not able to lift "Case 39" with him. The movie has struggled to reach even $12 million in domestic box office, and Cooper did nothing to call attention to the horror movie.

"Case 39" was stuck in a little discussed corner of the industry: movie purgatory, where films with marketable stars — not just Cooper but Matt Damon, John Cusack, Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson — can linger for months, even years, trapped by marketing disagreements, creative clashes, executive shuffles, money shortfalls or the judgment that they are such surefire flops that it makes no sense to throw good money after bad and distribute them.

In a larger sense, experts say, the trend speaks to the financial house of cards that is the feature film these days. Although they seem to arrive by the bundle at the multiplex every weekend, studio-produced movies now take more time and money to make and market than ever before — and then go before an ever-smaller and more fickle theater-going audience. In the old days of movie distribution — say, the early 2000s — many orphaned movies might have been granted a pass out of purgatory with a direct-to- DVD release. But the cratering of the home video market makes that less economically attractive. A direct-to-DVD release also risks offending the sensitivities of stars and other creative people the studios want to work with again in the future.

These shelved movies often have their champions, who might note that at least one modern classic, "Diner," and one recent Oscar winner, "Slumdog Millionaire," were temporarily orphaned. But often these champions find themselves speaking into a void.

Mike Medavoy, a longtime producer and studio executive who was instrumental in such hits as "Annie Hall" and "Terminator 2," has watched as his passion producing project, " Shanghai," has remained on the shelf at the Weinstein Co. for nearly three years. "I try not to get upset because it's something I can't control," said Medavoy. "But every once in a while I do say to myself: 'I wonder if that movie will ever come out?' "

Directed by the Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom, "Shanghai" stars Cusack and an all-star international cast that includes Ken Watanabe, Franka Potente and Chow Yun-Fat. The World War II mystery-noir is built on an appealing premise: a man arrives in Japanese-occupied Shanghai to investigate the unexplained death of a friend. But the movie has languished amid reports within the industry of creative disagreements, corporate financial difficulties and a perceived diminished audience for large-scale period dramas.

(Contacted by The Times, a Weinstein Co. executive said that a contractual obligation that the movie comes out in China first is the primary source of the delay. With the film released there last summer, he said, the company is making plans to bring out "Shanghai" in the United States in early 2011.)

"These delays do seem to be happening a lot lately," acknowledged Walt Disney Pictures Distribution President Chuck Viane. "I don't think there's any single explanation, but I do wonder how much changing regimes has to do with it."

"Case 39," for instance, went through as many executive changes as Zellweger has gone through hairstyles. The Paramount Pictures co-president who initially oversaw the film, Brad Weston, was ousted and replaced by John Lesher before the movie could come out. With the film a priority for his predecessor, Lesher opted to postpone. Before he could get around to bringing out the movie, Lesher himself was pushed out, and the film repeated the cycle with current Paramount Film Group President Adam Goodman.

When it did land in theaters, "Case 39" received dismal notices (just a 27.2% positive rating on the compilation website Moviereviewintelligence.com) and was shunned by its stars. It took nearly half a dozen calls over three days to Cooper's representatives to ask him to explain why he didn't want to talk about his movie when it first came out. In the end, he didn't want to talk about that either, declining all comment.

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