For ‘Shutter Island,’ the wait may be worthwhile

Movies can be like wine: Once uncorked, they don’t often last long on the shelf. But Hollywood history could be a lot kinder to the postponed “Shutter Island,” and the movie’s last-minute date change might actually work to the thriller’s advantage.

Just six weeks before director Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel about the criminally insane was scheduled to hit theaters last October, Paramount Pictures pulled the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring movie from its year-end lineup.

Although “Shutter Island’s” television spots hadn’t yet started running, the film’s trailer and movie theater cardboard standees had been shipped, only to be quickly altered with the new release date. The publicity campaign was well underway too: The Cold War-era movie had been featured in numerous fall preview pieces, and was turning up in early Oscar prediction stories.

The nearly five-month stay was prompted by a number of financial reasons and knocked “Shutter Island” out of the current Academy Awards race. Though such postponements can be calamitous -- Universal changed the release date for “The Wolfman” three times, and the troubled remake opened to middling reviews and ticket sales last weekend -- the delay for the far more critically acclaimed “Shutter Island” now looks propitious, and could deliver the biggest opening weekend in Scorsese and DiCaprio’s careers: likely in the mid-$30-million range, and possibly as much as $40 million.

“If you have a bad movie, and you delay it, they pounce on you,” says one of the film’s producers, Mike Medavoy. “But if you have a good movie, and you delay it, you can get over it.”

It’s worked before

Some incredibly successful films -- “Titanic,” “Star Trek” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” being a few good examples -- were postponed from their initial premiere dates for various reasons and scarcely suffered.

Paramount is hoping that in moving “Shutter Island” to a release date close to 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” premiere (which hit theaters Feb. 14, because Valentine’s Day and cannibalism are such perfect partners), it can duplicate that film’s commercial and critical appeal. (It’s not the only tie to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winner: Ted Levine, who played the serial killer Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs,” has a memorable small role in “Shutter Island.”)

Audience tracking surveys show that the $75-million “Shutter Island” is generating strong “definite interest” -- 40% and higher -- from all four slices of the moviegoing population: men and women young and old alike. “It’s very rare that you get a movie with all four quadrants that high, especially for an R-rated movie,” says Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman. “This could end up being the perfect scenario for us.”

The story follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels’ (DiCaprio) search for an escaped inmate -- and answers to more complicated puzzles -- on a remote island housing the criminally insane.

The movie was not particularly easy to get made, and passed through several incarnations, with Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) once set to direct.

“The book is a descent into a state of mind,” screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis says. She says she wanted to craft a screenplay that “makes you as an audience member experience the pressure of what it feels like to descend into insanity.”

Scorsese says he was attracted by how the plot both indulged in, and then wreaked havoc with, the conventions of narrative storytelling. “Who is the narrator? What does he really know?” the director says.

DiCaprio, who is collaborating with Scorsese for the fourth time (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “Gangs of New York” their previous partnerships), came on board soon after. Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams round out the lead cast.

The waiting game

Paramount postponed the film’s release for several reasons, mostly related to the costs of releasing the film theatrically in the fourth quarter while not being able to collect its DVD income until 2010.

Around the same time, the studio was releasing DreamWorks’ “The Lovely Bones,” which initially looked like it might be an Oscar contender (it has but one nomination, for supporting actor Stanley Tucci). With the opening that was created in its schedule, Paramount released “Paranormal Activity,” the $15,000 thriller that grossed more than $100 million domestically

Given how strong “Shutter Island’s” early reviews have been -- and that “Shutter Island” is the only new film in wide release this weekend -- the movie is likely to establish new opening records for both Scorsese and DiCaprio.

The director’s previous best premiere came with 2006’s best picture winner “The Departed,” which grossed $26.9 million in its first three days. Even though DiCaprio starred in “Titanic,” his best opening was 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can,” which grossed $30.1 million.

The trickier question is whether awards voters will remember “Shutter Island” nine months from now, when studios and independent distributors typically start releasing their more cultured productions.

Scorsese says “I really don’t know” if the film’s delay will have any impact. “I go by what they really feel is important,” he says of Paramount. “And they’re behind the picture.”