One of my favorite Hollywood legends revolves around a Howard Hughes film from 1941 called “The Outlaw”, a trashy Western only notable for having launched the career of Jane Russell. The project, basically a fiasco from the start, had been taken over by its demanding producer mid-shoot after its original director, Howard Hawks, became tired of the control Hughes wielded over every aspect of the production, from casting decisions to how many clouds could be seen in the sky. And when the picture was finally finished—off-schedule and over-budget, naturally—its premiere brought nothing but scorn and ridicule from the press, with Time magazine going so far as to call it “the flopperoo of all time”. But Hughes had a plan. He asked his press agent, Russell Birdwell, to generate some grassroots public controversy by calling the San Francisco police department and demanding that “The Outlaw” be banned and censored in the interest of public morals. When they failed to comply, he called local religious leaders, PTA groups, and women’s organizations, stirring up citywide dissent.
Finally, as Otto Friedrich describes in his book about Hollywood in 1940s, “City of Nets”, Birdwell “wrote and planted in a San Francisco newspaper an article entitled “What Time Does Reel Six Go On?””, which “implied that unspeakable depravities occurred during reel six of “The Outlaw” and that armies of insiders who knew the secret were storming the theater to witness the orgy, although, as Birdwell later admitted, “there was nothing in reel six that you couldn’t have seen in reel five, four, or seven.”” This strategy proved successful. Controversy had been duly generated, public outcry had been achieved and sustained, and the hype machine had been kicked into full gear, promising box office fortune and an unexpected return on what had seemed an unwisely large investment. It was set to be a hit.
But it was a long, hard road to even get “The Outlaw” into theaters where rabid fans could line up to perhaps catch a glimpse of Jane Russell’s much-advertised bosom. Though the picture was completed and trademarked in early 1941, its theatrical premiere in San Francisco wouldn’t be for a further two years, in February of 1943, thanks in large part to the repressive efforts of an outraged MPAA. The duplicitous publicity stunt orchestrated by Birdwell had in a way been too successful for its own good, making it next to impossible for the film to expand into different markets and therefore demanded far more than supplied. “The Outlaw” didn’t open in New York until September 11th, 1947—after Hughes offered the Legion of Decency an alleged bribe of more than $150,000.
What, if anything, does this kind of inordinate delay tell us about the quality of the film in question? Though received wisdom advises skepticism toward long-delayed movies, I would suggest that it’s largely irrelevant. Or at least it isn’t directly relevant in the way that we often assume. It’s a truism that delays signal problems, and if you look at the history of some of the more infamously postponed releases, a recurring trend is desperate last-minute damage control. In the days of Hughes and the militant Hays office, the most common cause of delays was simply controversial content—objectionable material had to be excised and, in more extreme cases, new scenes or endings needed to be rewritten and reshot entirely—which could hardly be considered a warning sign for poor filmmaking. In fact it was often the opposite: many of the films that struggled the most to fight Hays cuts seem now to be the most transgressive, like the original “Scarface” or some of the raunchier Sturges screwballs.
Though films still contend with ratings boards through edits and concessions, it’s extremely rare for release dates to be pushed back as a result. If a delay is caused by controversy or a battle of opinions, these days it’s one more commonly fought between a filmmaker and the studio which owns their film; these kinds of internal affairs typically result in compromises reached through struggle and, by extension, time. Some of the most extreme modern cases begin and end with studio dissatisfaction: the studio responsible for the 80s-indebted teen comedy “Take Me Home Tonight” so detested the hard edge of Michael Dowse’s comedy (apparently they’d not seen his other work) that they quite stubbornly shelved film, completed in early 2007, for nearly half a decade before granting it a nominal, unpromoted release in 2011. In cases like this, it’s hard to sympathize with the studio: it might be their investment, but it’s usually a worse reflection of their fear of a flop than the quality of the film they’re suppressing.
The worst case of this kind of faithless distributor power-mongering is Miramax, whose Weinsteins have become rather notorious for snapping up the North American rights to foreign and arthouse pictures they clearly have no intention of properly releasing. Though there have been countless examples of great, underseen films effectively destroyed by Miramax’s refusal to screen or promote them, the most galling example to my mind was their frustratingly disrespectful treatment of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1995 masterpiece “Through the Olive Trees”, which was given only the most pitiful theatrical run and still has not been brought to DVD. These are extreme cases, of course, but they’re indicative of a trend in studio delays: what can sometimes seem like red-flag caution around a failing film is very often motivated by more insidious factors than discretion. Delayed films, in other words, sometimes get there because studios want them to be, and so it behooves us to treat studio excuses with a fair bit of skepticism.
Many will recall the strange case of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret”, one of the best and most important American films of the last decade, which, after four years on the shelf, found itself saved from the precipice of obsolescence by Slant Magazine critic Jaime Christley and his valiant #teamMargaret social media campaign in 2011. Fox Searchlight made things so difficult for “Margaret” that, had critics not rose to fight on its behalf when they did, it seems likely that the film would have came and went without any notice whatsoever, and in this case the protracted delay and hype-silencing limited release betrayed the grudges of the studio more than their faith in the film to succeed. Arguments over the (admittedly difficult) final cut—which roped both Lonergan and Fox into a legal battle that continues to this day—prevented the film from ever really being “finished” in the traditional sense, despite their not being anything objectionable or unreleasable in even the most sprawling iteration of the picture. As cases like this handily suggest, sometimes delayed films are the ones most deserving of a proper release.
“The Great Gatsby”, of course, is not exactly Lonergan’s low-budget meditation on post-9/11 America and the solipsism of the middle-class teen, so news of its nearly six-month delay isn’t heartening in the same way. It’s usually these massive studio blockbusters—the projects with the most riding on them financially—that seem more precarious the longer their theatrical releases are delayed, often because the studio is more in control of the end product is therefore less liable to fight against the content itself. And lately, as the summer release schedule grows more and more crowded, factors like timing and promotion and tentpole distribution are having an increasingly significant impact on the way studios choose to parcel out their hits.
Over the last year alone, more than a dozen major releases have been rescheduled for ambiguous reasons, though box office analysts have been ascribing the motivations to the most apparently minute reasons. The patently ludicrous (and incredibly awful) magic action-drama “Now You See Me”, originally slated for the dead zone of January (where it belongs), was pushed ahead a few months before being pushed ahead once more to the end of May, where its release date now hangs; the reason, it would seem, is that the studio wanted to push it as a summer spectacle in the vein of a Nolan-esque sizzler.
A release date can tell you a lot about a studio film—or at least a lot about how a studio feels about a film. It’s likely that “Captain Phillips”, the Tom Hanks vehicle directed by Paul Greengrass, was pushed back to the end of the year in order to position it for awards season, a rare case in which a delay might suggest that the film is better than the studio had anticipated rather than worse. This has an obvious precedent in James Cameron, who rescheduled both “Titanic” and “True Lies” from the summer to December to great effect (and in both instances the delay opened up a massive opening-weekend date filled by lesser efforts).
With “Gatsby”, the delay probably meant both good and bad things: on the one hand, moving a drama from December to May indicates that the studio didn’t anticipate the need for an awards-push (movies slated for December are usually the Oscar likelies), but on the other hand floating a big-budget star picture into the summer season suggests that the studio saw its potential to stand as a de facto blockbuster right for the season (a guess that has already been vindicated by the film's impressive box office haul). The point, in any case, is that none of this is a science; it’s impossible to tell based on a delay whether a film will be better or worse, even though in many cases it does signal one or the other.