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'Shutter Island': A release date change proves a stroke of marketing magic

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Nine times out of ten, when a movie gets its release date changed at the last minute, it’s a sign of trouble, an indication that someone at the studio didn’t have enough confidence in it. But then there’s that one time out of ten when changing a movie’s release date isn’t glorified damage control — when it’s an ingenious act of repositioning, a marketing correction that allows a hit to happen where it might not have otherwise.

That’s the way it went down in 1992, when Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, originally set to be a major summer release, was pushed back to the fall. It looked, momentarily, as if the film’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox, had lost confidence in it. Actually, Fox figured out that if Mohicans opened during the summer, then Mann’s one-of-a-kind movie — a dazzling historical adventure that was also as artful a period piece as any Merchant-Ivory teacup-rattler — would just seem like one more action-film-of-the-week, and a rather tricky one to characterize (and advertise) at that. Whereas in the fall, it could own the action market; at the same time, it could draw serious adult audiences attracted to its literary pedigree and to Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest feat of Method immersion. It worked like a charm: The Last of the Mohicans was the big hit of the season.

Cut to last fall, when it was announced that Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island was getting its release date bumped from Oct. 2, 2009, to Feb. 19, 2010. That was a very tough move to spin. The studio, Paramount Pictures, claimed that it simply couldn’t afford to market the film as it desired amid the launch of the holiday awards season rush. And maybe that’s true. But deliberately, pointedly moving a Martin Scorsese movie out of awards season? There’s no way that sounded promising.

It fact, it was a marketing masterstroke. Coming out in October, with Scorsese now an Oscar-winning director, Shutter Island would have been perceived as an awards film, and let’s be blunt: On that score, it wouldn’t have cut it. I liked it more than a number of other critics did, and if my B review was actually on the positive end of the scale, then there’s a good chance that the movie, viewed on Academy terms as a “prestige” thriller, might have ended up not faring a whole lot better than Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. Instead, the studio basically said: Screw all that awards stuff! By opening the film now, in the middle of the season of low-rent romcoms and other time-killing genre fluff, they allowed it to stand out from the crowd. Shutter Island is far from a great thriller, but it’s a decent Saturday-night high-octane popcorn movie. In the middle of a nowhere zone like February, when no one’s expectations are very high, it seems closer to a gift than a disappointment.

Back in the fall, Scorsese probably had to give his wounded ego a pep talk or two when he learned that his film wasn’t going to get a shot at this year’s Academy Awards. I’m sure that the movie’s $40 millon opening weekend has helped to ease the pain. But here’s the thing: Had it opened last October, there’s a good chance that Shutter Island wouldn’t have made that $40 million. It needed to be sold, and perceived, as a no-nonsense genre movie, not as lofty awards bait.

Scorsese has long talked about interspersing his more personal projects with the movies he makes in no small part to please the studios. Not that he doesn’t want to please himself — but the strategy of “One for them, one for me” has, over the years, become a Scorsese mantra. This time, I would say that he made a movie for the studio that he pretended, at least to himself, he was making for himself. And the release date change therefore became an essential corrective: This, declared the suits at Paramount, isn’t a Martin Scorsese movie — it’s a movie, period. The irony is, Scorsese didn’t end up making one for himself, or even for the studio. He made one, purely and simply, for the audience. I hope it buys him the freedom he craves, and that he can now make a movie we crave.

So for everyone who went to see Shutter Island this weekend, what were your expectations? Were you going to see “a Martin Scorsese picture,” or just a cool-looking thriller? Or both?