Shelf life: We take a look at where studios send their films to die

Like any other perishable item, films have an expiration date. The good ones can last nearly forever, but the bad ones can be canned and shelved, and their contents will still be rotten. When The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a big budget sci-fi comedy starring Eddie Murphy, finally sees the light of day next Friday, the film’s release will mark the two-year anniversary of when the film actually wrapped back in the summer of 2000. Although the delay doesn’t necessarily mean the film is bad (last year’s Joy Ride suffered a similar fate and was a pleasant surprise), Pluto Nash has already become a casualty of bad publicity from one of the worst viruses in Hollywood – the dreaded test screening process.

After disastrous results, Pluto Nash was a victim of retooling, reshoots and more test screenings, common symptoms of a film that is receiving the cold shoulder from its distributor, Warner Bros. And despite the box office clout of Eddie Murphy and all the special effects an $80 million budget can afford, the film has been collecting dust ever since director Ron Underwood (City Slickers) called “cut.” In the two years it took for Pluto Nash to finally make it to the big screen, Nash co-star Rosario Dawson has already starred in another intergalactic feature, Men In Black II, which was shot a year and a half after Nash was, and the film’s trailer was cut to include an already dated joke about Hillary Clinton.

But the actual release dates of films aside, many films are shelved every year for reasons varying from the fact that they’re just plain bad (this year’s Rollerball) to the timing, as was the case with many films planned to be released after Sept. 11. Collateral Damage and Big Trouble were both shelved for months because of the terrorist attacks and neither had box office success, with Big Trouble notably taking in less than $6 million during its entire theatrical run.

More notorious is the tendency of certain studios to hold films back, regardless of their quality, simply because they can’t find distribution elsewhere. Miramax, the king of such studios, has more films sitting on their shelf than they plan to release in a year, a strategy described by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein in an www.indiewire.com article in 1999.

“Here’s my excuse, which might be feeble: I love movies, and sometimes I see these small films and many often times, I find out through the marketplace that nobody else wants to buy these movies,” Weinstein told indieWire.

Although the countless films that are in Miramax’s basement were picked up through acquisitions at film festivals, the studio also has films with big stars and big budgets that were produced in-house that haven’t been released years after they were made. Martin Scorcese’s upcoming Gangs of New York has been plagued with reshoots and infighting between Scorcese and Weinstein, as detailed in an April 7 New York Times article, and past shelved releases include last year’s misbegotten Texas Rangers, Reindeer Games, All the Pretty Horses, Imposter and David Schwimmer’s directorial debut Since You Were Gone, all got the silent treatment from Miramax execs for two years or more, and it’s a tradition that continues well into the future.

Billy Bob Thornton may have suffered the worst luck with the company, considering the studio ordered Thornton to cut his directorial follow-up to Sling Blade, All The Pretty Horses, in half, and he currently has two films on Miramax’s bill without a release. Previews have already come and gone for Waking Up in Reno and Daddy and Them, two comedies that have had release dates set and have been canceled numerous times. Miramax actually snuck Daddy and Them, which was the second film directed by Thornton after Sling Blade and starred pre-Angelina Jolie fiancee Laura Dern, into five theaters in Macon, Ga., last fall with less than $500 in receipts and a whole lot of explaining to do to Miramax accountants.

At least, the film will receive a release on Showtime this fall, ending almost four years of speculation. Waking Up in Reno, Thornton’s other film, which he only acted in with Charlize Theron, hasn’t been saved by cable yet and still expects a proper release in theaters. But that film is probably sitting right next to Reno director Jordan Brady’s other film, The Third Wheel, on Miramax’s shelf.

Executive-produced and featuring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, The Third Wheel is a romantic comedy starring Luke Wilson and Denise Richards that has been touted on the Miramax Web site for nearly a year and a half in the coming soon section until it was pulled two months ago. Brady wisely took his next film, American Girl, through the traditional independent route and can only hope to avoid getting picked up by the studio.

Unfortunately, even Miramax golden girl Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t immune from the waiting game with the release of her romantic comedy, A View from the Top, which was shot two years ago and still is looking for a release date. Boasting a cast that includes Paltrow, would-be “it” girl Christina Applegate, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Preston and Mike Myers, the comedy about flight attendants was delayed after Sept. 11 for a sequence that involved Myers satirically teaching a flight school class about defense against terrorists. Since then, a new date hasn’t been given, and to think, there’s still enough film canisters around the studio to hold more films, including the Kevin Spacey Irish mob drama Ordinary Decent Criminal, which was lambasted in the United Kingdom and subsequently has never been seen in the United States.

Still, Miramax certainly isn’t alone in shelving films, as many studios will display in the upcoming weeks. Of course, Warner Bros. is finally discarding Pluto Nash into theaters, but a month later, New Line plans to release Knockaround Guys, a movie completed so long ago a full length trailer was attached to 2000’s Boiler Room. Naturally, New Line expects naive theatergoers to jump at the chance for a Vin Diesel double bill, since the film arrives only a few weeks after XXX. However, Knockaround Guys, directed by the co-writers of Matt Damon’s Rounders and starring Diesel, John Malkovich, Seth Green, Barry Pepper and Dennis Hopper, has had negative test screenings that have become legendary in the industry.

Another film whose journey has become the stuff of legends is the Sylvester Stallone action film D-Tox, which has gone through three title changes and a disownment by original producer Brian Grazer, who is sparing audiences from a trailer announcing D-Tox as being from the “people who brought you A Beautiful Mind.” However, the film has already been released worldwide outside of America and in fact, a trailer and poster could be found online since February. Remarkably, D-Tox may end up going directly to video, which would be Stallone’s first film to do so, though probably not his last. His comedy completed in 2000, Avenging Angelo, hasn’t found a distributor yet and co-stars the late Anthony Quinn.

While Stallone’s films languish with a lack of fan support being the main obstacle to their eventual release, the exception to the rule of shelved films has actually only had fan support to bank on for a potential release. Run Ronnie Run, the feature debut for the cult hit and now-defunct television variety show Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, has become an activist effort, as far as seeing the film ever released in some form or another. Bagged and tagged in November of 2000, Run Ronnie Run is a feature length version of Mr. Show’s most popular skit involving Ronnie Dobbs (played by Cross), a hero of sorts who becomes a celebrity after being arrested on the TV show Cops a record number of times.

Brimming with cameos by the likes of Jack Black, Garry Shandling, Jeff Goldblum and Andy Richter, Run Ronnie Run benefited from a premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, in addition to a screening at CineVegas, as well as a rabid fan base, but in spite of that, New Line has already dropped the film once only to pick it up again and hold its release. Originally the film was intended to be released in October 2001, then again in April of this year, then New Line dropped the release, which prompted Odenkirk and Cross to promote their films in a grassroots effort. When they plugged the DVD release of the first two seasons of Mr. Show, Odenkirk and Cross made a point of spending an equal amount of time promoting Run Ronnie Run, even showing clips from the film and encouraging fans to send e-mails to the heads of distribution at New Line in a show of support.

Ultimately, their fans came through and New Line again holds the rights to the film, though no release date has been set.

Like so many other films with less positive results, Run Ronnie Run will probably be released in some form or another, but has already been scarred by its place on a Hollywood shelf. Though it’s not much of a reputation to share, at least, for most films and their filmmakers, the shelf isn’t a lonely place and the longer the film’s shelf-life is, the less likely the film will last.

Copyright The Daily Texan