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Can Warner Bros. Avoid Another Wachowski Misfire?

Warner Bros. stunned Hollywood when it pushed the release of “Jupiter Ascending” by seven months — a move that seemed abrupt, but had been debated by the studio for nearly six weeks as the Channing Tatum-Mila Kunis science-fiction epic’s box office prospects dimmed. Delaying a movie’s release is no easy decision, since it adds millions of dollars in interest and other completion costs to the budget and creates negative buzz that is hard to shake. But it can be even more costly and potentially deadly to roll out such a pricey pic, already laden with a production budget of $175 million, before it’s ready.

That became abundantly apparent when Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, and other execs saw the latest version of the picture — which had already gone through minor reshoots in January and again three months later to clarify plot points.

The decision to shift the film’s prime July 18 release date to February 2015 was prompted by weak response to a research screening in late April and the fact that the visual effects, on which the futuristic thriller heavily relies, were incomplete.

That left Kroll without enough strong content or time to build an effective marketing campaign to give the movie a proper launch. Warners will spend more than $100 million on worldwide marketing for the movie, which was one-third financed by Village Roadshow.

“The evolution of this film always had a tight delivery, a tight release,” Kroll told Variety. “But it was really about protecting the movie.”

Studios often find themselves in the self-inflicted position of having to race to make a release date that has been set far in advance amid a competitive landscape, and allows no margin for error. This is not the first time that Warner has opted to move the release date of a movie that wasn’t yet cooked.

William Sargent, co-founder and CEO of Framestore, one of the major vfx vendors on the film, says studios have become more willing to delay a film’s release, even if that means swallowing millions in interest.

“We have seen Warners delay a release for excellent marketing reasons, of which ‘Gravity’ is the ultimate example,” said Sargent, noting that film was completed almost a year before release. But after several lukewarm screenings, the release was pushed. Warners also moved back the 2014 fantasy action picture “300: Rise of an Empire” when its effects weren’t finished.

The studio can only hope that “Jupiter Ascending” winds up benefiting from its delay as those two films did. But there are no guarantees, and the stakes remain high.

Moving the picture leaves a gaping hole in Warner’s summer lineup, and comes during a trough for Hollywood’s biggest film studio. While “Godzilla” has performed respectably (Warner only owns 25%), “Blended,” starring Adam Sandler, was a dud, and the Tom Cruise-toplined “Edge of Tomorrow,” which cost $175 million, is still far from breaking even.

The “Jupiter” shakeup also casts a shadow on directors Lana and Andy Wachowski, whose past two films, “Cloud Atlas” and “Speed Racer,” wiped out at the box office. “Jupiter” was to mark the siblings’ long-awaited return to the science-fiction genre after their successful run with “The Matrix” movies.

Without a new franchise or Batman, Superman or Harry Potter sequel in its arsenal this year, Warners has taken risks on several original properties.

But the payoff this summer has so far been elusive.

David Cohen contributed to this report.

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