Rival studios hold back

But not all movies consigned to the shelf are in trouble

Things are lonely out there in limbo-land. But less lonely than in the past.

A growing number of movies lately seem to be in a holding pattern insofar as their releases are concerned.

Here’s a short list: Sony/MGM’s remake of “The Pink Panther” starring Steve Martin; Par’s Nicolas Cage-starrer “The Weather Man”; Regency’s Marc Forster-helmed “Stay”; Fox Searchlight comedy “The Ringer”; another Martin pic, Disney’s “Shopgirl”; and Regency’s “The Untitled Onion Movie.”

Life can be tough in limbo-land. Interest costs run up. Negative buzz builds up, too.

In truth, however, not all movies consigned to the shelf are necessarily in trouble.

It may be simple logistics: Two studios don’t want to release competing films with the same star or competing films with similar plotlines (such as White House romancers “First Daughter” and “Chasing Liberty”). Or it can be artistic: The studio wants to hold the film for a re-edit.

Often it’s timing: With a crowded release sked, a studio has to carefully time an opening so that it doesn’t compete with rivals’ films or even the studio’s own.

For example, many think “Cinderella Man’s” disappointing box office depended on its release timing. The pic was skedded for December 2004, but Russell Crowe’s injury delayed production; some argue Universal should have delayed the June release even longer.

Aside from bad buzz, there is one other downside to a delay: money.

Every day a film sits in storage is another day of interest payments. Typically, a budget is financed at the prime rate plus 1%. Over 18 months, a $40 million movie can see $3 million in interest added to its budget.

“If you’re holding a movie for a better date, or for Academy consideration, or for better editing, then you come out OK on the other side,” observes one former studio head. “If you’re holding a movie because it’s just not working, well, that’s an ugly, ugly black hole.”

Hollywood once muttered that “The Godfather” must be in trouble, since its December 1971 launch was delayed due to the fact that Francis Coppola was shooting added scenes. “Titanic,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Gangs of New York” all had releases delayed due to production setbacks; the distribs wanted to wait until the films were right. In each case, the results were successful.

But there have been plenty of examples when audiences saw a delayed film and decided it wasn’t worth the wait — think “The Alamo,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “Town and Country,” “Against the Ropes” and “View From the Top.”

While all these films were sitting on the shelf, there were all kinds of delays, due to production woes, post-production clashes, legal considerations — and other reasons.

Par’s “The Weather Man” wrapped more than a year ago, but last fall it would have faced off against “National Treasure,”another Cage movie. “Weather” was delayed until April 2005, but five weeks before it was to open, the studio moved the comedy drama to Oct. 28.

“Weather Man” producer Todd Black asserts the delay was driven by two factors: Critics, he said, liked the film at early screenings and suggested it be moved back to awards season; and Cage and director Gore Verbinski weren’t available to promote the film at the earlier date. (Cage was shooting “Ghost Rider”; Verbinski was starting production on back-to-back “Pirates of the Caribbean” pics.)

Par has another awards hopeful in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” which has been moved from July to the fall.

Regency’s “Stay” is a more complicated matter. The studio won a bidding war for the David Benioff spec in October 2001, in an unusual deal that paid Benioff all his money upfront and included a special progress-to-production commitment. The film started shooting in October 2003, with “Finding Neverland” helmer Forster at the helm, and wrapped principal photography in early 2004.

The studio didn’t want to release it at the same time as Forster’s “Finding Neverland” — which itself had sat on the shelf for a year, due to a legal agreement among Miramax, the James M. Barrie estate and Universal-Revolution, which released a live-action “Peter Pan.” With no release date for “Stay” in sight, Forster was happy to take his time editing, and even re-mixed its sound twice.

But Regency’s question now is finding the right date for the aptly-titled “Stay.” The film defies easy marketing categories: It’s a metaphysical thriller.

Furthermore, marketing will most certainly require an adroit touch, given that “Stay” takes a nonlinear narrative approach and centers on suicide.

Regency is searching for the right approach and the right timing. And so “Stay” now has an Oct. 14 release date a full two years after the start of production.

A similar scheduling problem affected Fox Searchlight’s “The Ringer.” The comedy was initially held up by having to seek approval from the Special Olympics, which is prominently featured in the pic. It was ready for release last spring, but would have competed with another Farrelly Bros. comedy at Fox, “Fever Pitch.”

The late summer might have provided a home for “Ringer,” but reps for star Johnny Knoxville interceded. Warner Bros.’ “The Dukes of Hazzard” will unspool in August — rather than the original plan of going in June — and his agents cringed at two Knoxville films competing. “Ringer” is now headed for release in December.

Meanwhile, trailers for MGM’s “The Pink Panther” — featuring Martin’s re-invention of the Inspector Clouseau character — had been running for much of this year, prepping audiences for an August opening of the comedy.

But in June, two months after Sony closed the deal for MGM, “Panther” was shifted to Feb. 10, 2006 — where it will open against Universal’s “Curious George,” which itself was moved back four months from its original release date. Sony’s marketing team expressed a need to put their own stamp on the “Panther” campaign.

“Shopgirl” went into production in fall 2003. At that point, the film had a certain notoriety: When Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting, she said she was prepping for the pic.

The romantic comedy’s female lead went instead to Claire Danes.

Last winter, the film was rumored for Sundance. But the studio instead opted to hold it for the Toronto Film Festival in September, as a way to launch a a campaign as a possible Oscar contender.

The pic opens Oct. 21.

“We felt a sophisticated comedy like this would be a better fit at Toronto and there was going to be too much time between Sundance and a fall release,” Disney spokesman Dennis Rice said.

The sketch comedy pic “The Untitled Onion Movie,” financed by Regency and distribbed by Fox Searchlight, began production in November 2003. Two months later, the filmmakers had about 90 minutes of footage. Execs trimmed it back to an hour, leaving the need for another 30 to 40 minutes of ripped-from-the-headlines vignettes.

However, changes in the Onion’s management meant the film’s co-directors, Mike Maguire and Tom Kuntz, most likely won’t be returning to finish the job.

The pic is now headed past the $10 million mark. While Searchlight may still distribute the pic, it’s apparently no longer helping oversee production. Regency says it plans to resume production in August and wants to have the comedy in theaters by early 2006.

“Sketch movies are all about timeliness,” explains Regency production prexy Sanford Panitch. “But we’re in a world in which dating a release has become everything.”

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