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Hollywood’s little secret: movie purgatory

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.

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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.

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(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.

Zellweger, whose stock has dipped precipitously since she made “Case 39" (she was three years removed from an Oscar for the Civil-War drama “Cold Mountain” when she shot the horror movie; she’s had largely poorly reviewed flops since) also didn’t want to be associated with “Case 39.” Like Cooper, she did no promotion for the movie, and her representatives declined to comment for this story.

In some cases, dipping star fortunes may actually be the reason the movie goes on the shelf.

The most conspicuous recent case of a tarnished reputation sending a film to purgatory involves Mel Gibson. His offbeat dramatic comedy “The Beaver” was for years the hottest script in Hollywood. It began shooting about a year ago with Jodie Foster as its director and was on track to come out this fall — until Gibson’s alleged rants at ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva surfaced. The film now has no release date.

Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin star in perhaps the most prominent of all orphaned films, “Margaret” a drama about a teen girl (Paquin), her teacher (Damon) and a tragic bus accident. “Margaret” was the follow-up to screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut, “You Can Count on Me,” which was released in 2000 to critical acclaim and two Oscar nominations. Lonergan began shooting “Margaret” more than five years ago. Since then, the project has been plagued by extensive reshoots, endless edits and two complicated lawsuits.

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Lonergan has continued writing for the theater and the movies, but he hasn’t directed another film, and “Margaret” remains locked in the safe. If the movie does ever hit theaters, it may seem like a time capsule: Paquin, now the 28-year-old star of the sexy television series “True Blood,” was 22 then and played a vulnerable teenager.

It seems surprising, with Hollywood wanting to recoup every last penny it sinks into a film, that many of these movies wouldn’t even get a token release. But experts say that an ever-intensifying media culture and high marketing costs have changed the game.

For much of the 20th century, studios churned out movies with regularity, and often at manageable costs. If one film had creative or marketing problems, executives would still put it in theaters, because if it didn’t succeed there was another film coming up right behind it. But movie distribution is a riskier enterprise these days. The major studios now are also subsidiaries of publicly owned international conglomerates and must answer to corporate executives and shareholders.

“The stakes are too high to just push out a movie that you have questions about,” said a marketing executive at a studio that has a film in purgatory who asked not to be identified because of sensitivities with the filmmakers. “You have to make sure it’s going to earn back what you’re going to put into it, which is usually a lot.”

The prospect of release limbo doesn’t always spell an unhappy ending. The recent Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” was headed for the shelf after Warner Bros. closed the division that was to release it in 2008. After some well-timed calls between high-ranking Warner Bros. and Fox executives, the movie was successfully picked up by Fox Searchlight, which shepherded it to eight Oscars and more than $350 million in global box office.

And in the early 1980s, MGM was prepared to send to purgatory a movie that mainly featured people sitting around a restaurant talking. Frustrated, producer Mark Johnson and director Barry Levinson sneaked out a print and showed it to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who at the time wielded an influence no single critic can claim today. “It was the only way we could pressure MGM to release it,” Johnson said.

The film was “Diner,” and Kael loved it, pledging to write a good review that would also criticize MGM for its dithering. Johnson informed the studio, which relented and agreed to release it. The movie went on to earn an Oscar nomination, launch several careers and become one of the most influential movies of its time.

“It was a bold move, but we had to do it,” Johnson said. “I only wish there was a way like that to get a film out of limbo today.”

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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