The Pink Panther was supposed to be released last summer. Carsten Knox deconstructs the complicated world of film distribution schedules.

February is a graveyard. From the perspective of a Hollywood studio head, now is the time to release all the movies that have tested poorly or in which he or she has little confidence. The studio marketing budgets for the past few months have gone towards winning the high-end product, the pictures that were released through the fall and into December, a place in the Oscar race. Once the nominations are announced and certain movies are given an extra push or rereleased—see the sudden reappearance in cinemas of Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck—the only pictures opening through March will be genre exercises: broad horror and their sequels (When A Stranger Calls, Final Destination 3), action movies (Firewall) and dumb comedies (Big Momma’s House 2), or movies delayed from their original release date due to the likelihood they’re stinkers.

The Pink Panther opened last Friday. Here is a franchise connected to its original leading actor with superglue. Genius physical comedian Peter Sellers was the bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau through five movies in the ’60s and ’70s. Efforts to bring other talented comic actors into the franchise, such as Alan Arkin in Inspector Clouseau (1968) and Roberto Benigni in Son of the Pink Panther (1993), failed miserably.

This time, Clouseau is essayed by Steve Martin, who also gets a co-scripting credit. The comedy, directed by Shawn Levy (Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen), was to have been released in August of 2005. Why wasn’t it? Perhaps the test screenings were inconclusive and required some reshoots, or maybe just a release date on which the competition in the current comedy releases would be light. Distributing studio Sony’s official line was that it “wanted to give our marketing department the time and opportunity to launch this very important franchise.” But maybe the film just isn’t very good. As of this writing, only one in five North American critics liked The Pink Panther, according to

Occasionally, other factors besides quality or a bigwig’s cold feet will play into why a studio film is delayed getting to the local multiplex. The enormously expensive and popular romantic epic Titanic was released late due to a six-month shooting schedule (twice the normal amount) and post-production work requiring additional special effects, something that made the industry papers due to the exorbitant cost. Eyes Wide Shut, by Stanley Kubrick, took 400 days to shoot and a year in post-production, pushing through many rough release dates before finally opening in July 1999. Kubrick’s power as a filmmaker was such that Warner Brothers let him take as much time as he felt was necessary to make the film, which included engaging his two stars, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, for as long as he needed them.

November 2005 should have seen V for Vendetta, a science fiction fantasy starring Natalie Portman and set in a Britain of the future, where a masked terrorist uses explosives to destroy the fascist regime. Though the producers claim the film needed more time for special effects, many believe they wanted to avoid any associations with the bombings in London last summer. Then there are times when one studio’s shifting of the release dates of its big movies can affect another studio’s dates: when Disney/Pixar pushed its animated picture Cars to summer 2006, it forced Dreamworks to move Shrek 3 to summer 2007.

Backroom calculations and release date decisions based on marketing have far less impact on release dates for independent films made outside the Hollywood system. There are only so many screens available for the smaller indie film, and if it’s a hard one to sell in a tagline or on a poster, it can be delayed indefinitely or only find a release on DVD. This is especially true in smaller markets like Halifax, where a small film has to have a major buzz to get a theatrical release. From this past year, consider the South Korean thriller Oldboy or the Quebec hit CRAZY as examples of worthy pictures with posters that lingered outside the Oxford but never opened in theatres.

When industry godfathers Bob and Harvey Weinstein left Miramax to form The Weinstein Company, a number of films got caught in a holding pattern, including The Libertine, an historical drama starring Johnny Depp, John Malkovich and Samantha Morton. Though it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, rumours abound as to the reason for its limited release thus far. Could it be tangled in a new company’s promotional backlog, inherited from Miramax? Could the film’s dark subject matter and unsympathetic protagonist make it a tough one to promote despite the presence of sexy Johnny Depp? Or could it just suck out loud?

The Pink Panther is now showing

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