Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Delays, Delays

One of the reasons it's so frustrating to follow movies sometimes is the sudden changes in scheduling. The character of a season can change in the blink of an eye. After lengthy speculation as to whether Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" would be completed in time for a 2012 release, a recent teaser trailer and a round of promotions at the Cannes Film Festival all but guarantee that it's going to be one of the major awards contenders this winter. Meanwhile, Alponso Cuaron's "Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock, had been slotted for a November 21, 2012 release date for months, but last week it was announced that it was being pushed back to 2013. There were test screenings for an incomplete version going on earlier in the spring, but it’s been suggested that the production has hit delays, and apparently the competitive holiday season means a shortage of 3D screens in November and December. So Warners is opting to delay the film.

Rumors abound, but it's impossible to tell what’s really going on. We don’t know if the movie tested well or not. We don't know if the move is meant to give Cuaron more time to finish his special effects, or because the studio doesn't think that it can compete with the likes of "Skyfall" and "The Hobbit," or if this is merely a tactical move so Warners isn't wrangling too many pictures in the same awards season – they’ll be juggling Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby,” and the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” along with “The Hobbit.” "Gravity" was one of my most anticipated films going into 2012, and I've been very conscientious about not reading any of the reactions from screenings and not buying into any conspiracy theories. And yet, I'm extremely curious as to what Warners' thinking is here. This isn't the only film that they've delayed this year. "Jack the Giant Killer" was originally scheduled for this June, but got pushed back to March, 2013. The stated reason for the delay was to finish up special effects and take advantage of "The Hobbit" to launch a marketing push. Most observers noted that March is becoming a more lucrative month for big budget releases, while much less competitive than the middle of summer, so "Jack" would probably fare better there.

That narrative doesn't quite work for "Gravity" though. If it's anywhere near as ambitious as the hype seems to indicate, shouldn't Warners want to take advantage of awards season? On the other hand, with so many awards inching their deadlines earlier and earlier, if the film is struggling with post-production and has to be rushed to make its November deadline, it might be worth it to wait until the next awards season in 2013. Warners got burned last year with "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" being left out of contention for several key awards due to late screenings. "Gravity" doesn't have a new release date yet, but where it ends up on the schedule will say a lot about how commercially viable Warners thinks it is. The later in the year it resurfaces, the better. Hopefully it won't be another case like "47 Ronin," Universal's samurai film with Keanu Reeves, which was also supposed to open on November 21, 2012. An expensive production with a first-time director, the project is reputedly a troubled one, and its new release date reflects this - February 8, 2013.

Other former 2012 releases include the Brad Pitt zombie film "World War Z," which was scheduled for December, but pushed back to a comfortable June, 2013 berth, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, "Bullet to the Head," which went from April, 2012, to February, 2013, and "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," which originally slated for March, 2012, but is now being dumped in January, 2013. The remake of "Gambit" with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz nearly ended up there too, but CBS Films had a change of heart and pulled it back to October 12, 2012. Now I want to emphasize that a release date really has nothing to do with the quality of a film, but rather its perceived commercial prospects, which have a major effect on marketing and distribution. Some of these moves signal serious problems, but others are simply a matter of the studios trying to balance out their release slates, or working out marketing strategies.

Consider the multiple delays of John Hillcoat's "Lawless," formerly known as "The Wettest County in the World." The Weinstein Company acquired it at Cannes a year ago, and was originally considering it for a 2011 awards season run, but they had a lot of major contenders already, so the film was moved to April, 2012. A few months ago, it was delayed again to August, purportedly to take advantage of any buzz for "Lawless" leading man Tom Hardy after "The Dark Knight Rises" bows in July, where Hardy plays the villain Bane. All the repositioning doesn’t appear to have hurt “Lawless,” a movie most average movie watchers never heard of before this week, but it’s still frustrating as hell for those of us who just want to see the damn thing already.

So it goes with “Gravity.” The movie is high profile enough that Warners won’t sit on it for too long, so it’s just a matter of waiting to see what tactic they want to use to sell it to us. Relying on awards buzz next year means waiting until after Labor Day. If they think it’s a blockbuster prospect, maybe June or July. If they don’t want to take a risk that big, but still think it could make some money on the strength of its concept and stars alone, maybe March or April.

Fortunately, there are a lot of other interesting movies coming out in 2012 to keep us distracted. And “Gravity” may end up being part of a very promising run of science fiction pictures in 2013 – Neil Blomkamps’ “Elysium,” Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion,” Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” and “Ender’s Game” among others. I fully expect that 2012 is still going to be a great movie year, in spite of my most anticipated film no longer being part of it. And it’s always nice to have a few more movies to look forward to for next year.

UPDATE: Deadline broke the news today that "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is being moved to March, 2013 too, a little more than a month before it was set to open on June 29, 2012. They want to covert it to 3D and avoid the potential summer crush, which is all well and good, but has there been another case where a studio has waited to pull a film this close to its intended release date? The trailers have been out for months already.

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