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Shuffling ‘Shutter Island’

“Our 2009 slate was greenlit in a very different economic climate and as a result we must remain flexible and willing to recalibrate and adapt to a changing environment. This is a situation facing every single studio as we all work through the financial pressures associated with the broader downturn. Like every business, we must make difficult choices to maximize our overall success and to best manage Paramount’s business in a way that serves Viacom and its shareholders, while providing the film with every possible chance to succeed both creatively and financially.

Martin Scorsese is not just one of the world’s most significant filmmakers, but also a personal friend. Following a highly successful 2009, we have every confidence that Shutter Island is a great anchor to lead off our 2010 slate and the shift in date is the best decision for the film, the studio and ultimately Viacom.”

– Brad Grey, Paramount Pictures Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

That’s the studio’s position folks, and they are sticking to it. Just as trailers were playing all around the country, Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest getting the “coming in October” buzz, Paramount, pleading poverty, is moving their Fall tentpole film, Shutter Island to February 2010. As artistic portents of cinematic evil go, that’s pretty got-damn bad. Last year, The Soloist was also poised to be a major awards season player. Suddenly, Universal balked and moved the melodramatic mess to April. While some still found merit in the maudlin, manipulative drama, it was clear that few in the PR department believed in its Oscar potential.

Apparently, the same now applies with the b-movie magic that Scorsese crafted out of Dennis Lehane’s novel. While the preview offered up lots of Cape Fear like chills, this sudden shift in release is also indicative of the reaction the director’s 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller received. Many assumed Scorsese, a devout Catholic, would mine the material’s more religious themes – and there was some Bible thumping thrown in there for good God measure. But for the most part, his version of Fear was a psycho-sexual slam on modern families, a father and mother so disconnected that they couldn’t save their teenage daughter from a dangerous ex-con with an agenda. The movie only landed two Academy nods.

Now comes a similarly styled film that, while featuring DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ben Kingsley, apparently promises an analogous sentiment amongst award jurists. Paramount can argue all they want to about cash and casualty, but the truth remains that if they felt Shutter Island was the go-to guarantee for end-of-the-year recognition, they would be ramping up the campaign, not exiling the title to the motion picture equivalent of no-man’s (and audience’s) land. Industry wags are suggesting the Paramount, pleased with the response that Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is getting from test screenings and focus groups, it putting all their money behind the Lord of the Rings auteur. Apparently, there’s not enough room in the budget to forward two major releases toward critic’s list glory.

In some ways, it makes no sense. If Shutter Island is bad – and by that, one means a movie that will underperform in ways the studio never thought it could or possibly would – then why not leave it? Why move from the 2 October date and just let the chips fall where they may. Indeed, a lot of studios have suffered from a shoulder shrug form of programming these past four months. Movies like The Marc Pease Experience are literally getting a contractual dump before arriving on DVD, even if their commercial chances are next to nil. While Scorsese and DiCaprio may have some paper-mandated theater number, why not simply suck it up, release the stinker, and let everyone get one with their lives?

Of course, quality is not really the answer – Spring 2010 dead zone or not. No, what many should see in Paramount’s decision is something far more ominous. Taking what could be a prestige project (last time anyone checked, Scorsese’s most recent movie won Best Picture) with a pedigree all its own and moving it five months into the future suggests that the studio has nothing better to offer…again, NOTHING BETTER TO OFFER. Remember, if it’s bad, it will still be bad less than a year from now. But if it’s good, and by good one means saleable if not necessarily worthy of the little gold statue, Paramount is clearly saving it for what they foresee as some rather rocky business days ahead.

No one would fault the company if they simply came clean and said, “Look, this just isn’t Shutter Island‘s year. We got some real heavy hitters for Fall 2009, so we’ll save this entertaining effort for when things don’t look so peachy – say Spring of 2010. Don’t read anything into the quality of the film itself. This is purely an accounting issue…” Offering up said explanation, however, you require a deflation of ego that no one sitting on the West Coast is up to experiencing, at least not right now. Let’s face it, Star Trek aside, Paramount hasn’t been the studio setting things on fire as of late. Their last few films – Friday the 13th, Dance Flick, Imagine That and GI Joe haven’t been the biggest or brightest. Even their name on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more of a shared risk move with Dreamworks more than a red ink eradicator.

So maybe the stories of financial straights are legitimate. Maybe the studio screwed up and needs some reserves for the foreseeable future. Of course, it could just be that DiCaprio really is unavailable to do press in October, but are we supposed to believe that his superstar power is best saved for sometime when films are basically stinking up the box office? How does that logic work? It’s hard to point to Scorsese’s career and find a full fledged flop. He’s never been the most mainstream of filmmakers, but he typically doesn’t deliver trash. And it could be the material – from the synopsis’s one finds online, this looks like one royal mindf*ck of a movie, a chance for Scorsese to work out some personal demons while sticking some A-listers in a ’40s asylum setting.

Whatever the case, we won’t know into sometime far off in film’s future. By then, perhaps the truth will be told. Maybe some executive, playing scapegoat for the studio’s rotten box office returns, will step up and spill the beans. Maybe Scorsese, mad at how his latest masterwork was treated, will tell-all to some insider trade mag. Perhaps we’ll never find the truth, even when the film opens. Sometimes, good movies get mistreated – end of story. You could even argue a conspiracy theory like concept that this was all some marketing genius’s idea of gauging public interest while earning some free advance word – and let’s face it, we are talking about the movie far in advance of its eventual release. Shutter Island may or may not deserve this questionable move from Paramount. But this may be one time when the regular reasons for such a switch hide something more compelling – or concerning.