1. Case 39 (completed 2006; released 2010)
If a film sits on a shelf long enough, there’s a chance that a member of its cast will rocket to stardom during its lengthy post-filming, pre-release slumber and—theoretically at least—make it a more commercial proposition. That’s exactly what happened with Case 39. The Renée Zellweger-led fright flick was filmed in Vancouver in 2006, but wasn’t released in the United States until late 2010. By that point, co-star Bradley Cooper had made the leap from playing smarmy-handsome-asshole supporting roles in terrible movies to playing smarmy-handsome-asshole starring roles in generally less-terrible movies, and the film had played surprisingly well in Spain and Mexico. But that didn’t make much of a difference in the U.S., and the confused supernatural thriller died at the box office during the dog days of winter.
2. Prozac Nation (completed 2001; released 2005)
Noted Elizabeth Wurtzel superfan Elizabeth Wurtzel helped define a generation with Prozac Nation, her zeitgeist-friendly 1994 memoir of depression and self-absorption. The book quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon and made its author a wildly divisive literary figure, so a film adaptation was inevitable. Alas, audiences waited and waited and waited for the film, completed in 2001, to finally receive a richly merited direct-to-cable dumping in 2005. It’s easy to see why the whiny, insufferable self-pity-fest skipped the big screen, especially after Wurtzel first made insensitive comments about 9/11 (which she referred to as being like “a strange art project”) and then came out against the film version of her debut, which she told The New York Times was “horrible.” If only everyone involved in long-shelved films shared her candor.
3. Slapstick (completed 1982; released 1984)
Steven Paul’s ill-fated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s achingly sad novel Slapstick should never have been made. Then it never should have been released. But after two years on a shelf, Paul’s surreally misconceived quasi-satire about a pair of super-intelligent Siamese twins from outer space (played by Madeline Kahn and Jerry Lewis) was finally released with a new score and the delusional belief that audiences in 1984 might be a little kinder to the film than audiences would have been two years earlier. They weren’t.
4. Fanboys (completed 2006; released 2009)
Inherently dated by a premise that involves people actually getting excited for another Star Wars project, Kyle Newman’s Fanboys grew even staler thanks to a torturous pre-production process that kept it mired in development for nearly two years. An endorsement from George Lucas and cameos from Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams (among others) put fan anticipation for the film into hyperdrive, but the Weinstein Company balked at the central plot of Ernie Cline and Adam Goldberg’s script, which finds a group of former high-school buddies breaking into Skywalker Ranch so their friend can see The Phantom Menace before he dies of cancer. Fearing it would turn off audiences, the Weinsteins hired Little Nicky director Steven Brill to cut out that whole depressing, motivation-creating cancer thing and transform Fanboys into a broad, raunchy comedy. The Internet rebelled with the “Stop Darth Weinstein” campaign, incensed at the idea of anyone changing what they’d convinced themselves was a lighthearted yet touching and relatable story about the depths of fandom—or so they’d heard. Ultimately, that epic off-screen saga proved more interesting than what they got, which, even with the cancer, was a broad, raunchy road-trip comedy with some Star Wars references thrown in. In many ways, like The Phantom Menace itself, Fanboys was better off as just an idea.
5. All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (completed 2006; released worldwide in 2008 and 2009, still unreleased in North America)
The teen slasher movie All The Boys Love Mandy Lane premièred in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto Film Festival, as good a platform for a horror film as any in the world (akin to throwing a giant slab of raw meat to a pack of a thousand hungry wolves). It was a fine showcase for its pretty young star, Amber Heard, and Jonathan Levine, an ambitious director who went on to make The Wackness. The Weinstein Company picked it up under Bob Weinstein’s genre label Dimension, which handled the Scream trilogy, among other high-profile titles, and the film seemed destined to nab a couple weekends’ worth of teen dollars before retiring to home video. Now it’s 2011 and the film has burned through American release date after release date. Where creative issues have dogged many of the other films on this list, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane has been victimized more by the vagaries of business. Dimension lost a fortune on Grindhouse, which forced the company to sell the film to Senator Entertainment, which then also tanked, leaving the film in permanent limbo. The good news? Should it ever get released, a movie about horny teens killing each other will never be dated.
6. The Beaver (completed 2009; release set for 2011)
The public’s capacity for buying redemption stories seems nearly limitless, from Michael Vick’s comeback after a prison sentence for horrific canine abuse to Ben Roethlisberger falling one win short of everyone forgiving and forgetting his sexual-assault charges. And that’s just one season in the NFL. Mel Gibson enjoyed a brief window of redemption following his drunken, anti-Semitic ravings (e.g. “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”), during which his fourth directorial effort, Apocalypto, got released after some delay and the 2010 thriller Edge Of Darkness represented a tentative step back into starring roles. The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster from a script by Kyle Killen (TV’s Lone Star), was step two, but by the time it was ready, Gibson fell off the wagon again when his bilious voicemail messages to ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva leaked on the Internet. Meanwhile, an attempted second comeback, via a cameo appearance in The Hangover 2, was aborted when cast members revolted. All of which leaves The Beaver with a release date that’s crept from late 2010 to a tentative bow in late spring 2011, when the world may or may not be the furry hand-puppet that leads Gibson out of the abyss.
7. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (completed 1986; released 1990)
John McNaughton’s low-budget, 16mm shocker Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer defied easy categorization. Though it’s a grimy, violent, horrifying tale of urban psychosis, Henry had a commitment to realism that’s removed from typical grindhouse fare. At the same time, this was years before Quentin Tarantino made genre films palatable for the arthouse, so Henry wasn’t welcome in arthouses, either. (The producers, Malik and Waleed Ali, reportedly wanted a horror film with lots of gore, which McNaughton delivered in a classic case of abiding by the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.) Meanwhile, the MPAA repeatedly balked over the film’s extreme violence and refused to give it an R rating, no matter how much McNaughton was willing to cut from the film. In all, it took four years—and the prominent advocacy of Roger Ebert—to bring Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer into theaters, where it was hailed as a revolutionary deconstruction of the slasher genre and turned a neat little profit, too.
8. Invitation To The Dance (completed 1952; released 1956)
After Gene Kelly helped legitimize the movie musical as a potential “high art” form with the Oscar-winning An American In Paris, he sought to expand on the notion with Invitation To The Dance, a true auteur project that he wrote, directed, choreographed, and starred in. Intended to showcase top dancers and dance forms from around the world, Invitation To The Dance consists of three wordless stories, told—kitschily—through dance. MGM didn’t have much hope for the film’s commercial prospects, and sat on it for almost five years before releasing it in the waning era of big studio-musical production. Sure enough, Dance flopped, though along the way it won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and established a precedent for motion-picture companies backing musicals, then getting cold feet about actually releasing them.
9. Romance And Cigarettes (completed 2005; released 2007)
Following in the footsteps of Invitation To The Dance, John Turturro’s offbeat musical Romance And Cigarettes played the festival circuit in fall 2005, where it divided critics and festgoers. Was Turturro’s mix of pop music and working-class angst a visionary work of art, comparable to the musical TV series of Dennis Potter? Or was it 105 minutes of James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, and Susan Sarandon embarrassing themselves by mugging uncontrollably? (Correct answer: a little of both.) The split reaction spooked distributor United Artists, which originally planned to give Romance And Cigarettes a late-year release and an awards push. Instead, the movie was dumped into European markets in spring 2006 and didn’t get a U.S. release until fall 2007—and only then because Turturro chose to self-distribute.
10. The Other Woman (completed 2009; released 2011)
Don Roos’ The Other Woman—his adaptation of Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love & Other Impossible Pursuits—wasn’t such a hot property when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, but after star Natalie Portman became the presumptive favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Black Swan, the movie found its way into IFC’s VOD service earlier this year, and then into limited theatrical release. And because Portman already had the romantic comedy No Strings Attached set for January—and because Black Swan was doing so well at the box office—in some cities it was possible to choose among three different Natalie Portman roles at the multiplex.
11. Lovers On The Bridge (completed 1990; released 1999)
When Miramax was at the height of its arthouse success in the ’90s, the company’s main man, Harvey Weinstein, was notorious for buying up films that either he or his trusted friends loved, and then realizing belatedly that there was little to no market for them. For a long time, cinephiles kept lists of the movies Miramax had spirited away: Tears Of The Black Tiger, Through The Olive Trees, the color version of Jour De Fete, the restored The Young Girls Of Rochefort, and more. Some eventually came out on DVD, or in repertory runs, or through other companies, and some, Miramax eventually put into theaters. Leos Carax’s expressionistic romance Lovers On The Bridge wowed festival audiences on its way to a successful run in Europe in 1991, but sat on the Miramax shelf so long that by the time it saw stateside release, Carax was ready with his next movie, Pola X, and even film buffs who’d been waiting on Lovers On The Bridge for the better part of a decade had stopped holding their collective breath.
12. Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. (Completed 1990; released 1996)
Good ideas never die. And sometimes incredibly silly ideas refuse to keel over, too. Attempting to start another franchise in the vein of its popular Toxic Avenger series, the bargain-basement studio Troma Entertainment partnered with the videogame company Namco to create Sgt. Kabukiman, a kabuki-themed superhero. According to Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, Namco wanted a mainstream, family-friendly superhero who could be embraced by kids and grown-ups alike, down to his heat-seeking chopsticks. Kaufman wanted to give audiences the sex and violence Troma fans had come to expect, including a scene in which Sgt. Kabukiman kills a prostitute. The results—finished in 1990 and eventually shaped into PG-13 and R-rated cuts—sat unreleased for years as Kaufman shopped it around at the Cannes Film Festival and other markets with little luck. When it finally rolled out into a few theaters and a lot of video stores in 1996, filled with Batman references and hairstyles from the first Bush administration, it already looked like a relic of the recent past.
13. O.C. & Stiggs (Completed 1984; released 1987)
Robert Altman had a habit of making familiar genres his own, from Westerns to noirs. But putting his spin on the raunchy teen comedies of the ’80s proved a more daunting prospect. However philosophically simpatico he was to their anti-authoritarian subtext, teen comedies didn’t need the subtlety and complex textures of an Altman film to work. Today, O.C. & Stiggs, adapted from a series of National Lampoon stories, plays like a fascinating hybrid of styles that were never meant to go together, mixing physical comedy with biting satire of Reagan-era excess. But in 1984, test audiences balked at the results, earning the film three years on the shelf and a token release in 1987, when teen tastes had already moved into the John Hughes era.
14. The Fantasticks (completed 1995; released 2000)
The 1960 musical The Fantasticks played off-Broadway for a record-setting 42 years, but it had a lot less success transitioning to film. Michael Ritchie (Smile, The Bad News Bears) completed an adaptation in 1995 that was set to hit theaters in time for the holidays. It didn’t, and instead sat on the shelf for five years until Francis Ford Coppola oversaw an edit that drastically trimmed its running time. It’s easy to see why The Fantasticks didn’t catch fire: In spite of all the location shooting, the film somehow still looks theatrical, complete with big, broad performances to match. (A trailer that practically tried to hide that it was a musical probably didn’t help the film find the viewers who might not mind those touches.)
15. Old Dogs (completed 2008; released 2009)
Bernie Mac died in August 2008, so it was something of a shock to see him turn up in a supporting role in the late-2009 comedy Old Dogs. The film was his swan song, and Mac exited with the dignity he surely would have liked: pulling the strings on a human puppet suit inhabited by Robin Williams, who needs help interacting with children. A lot of help. But Mac’s death only caused the film’s first delay: It got pushed back again when the son of stars John Travolta and Kelly Preston died, and when Williams developed health problems.
16. Take Me Home Tonight (completed 2007; released 2011)
Take Me Home Tonight executive producer and co-screenwriter Topher Grace has claimed that Take Me Home Tonight’s long, undistinguished stint on the shelf—it was filmed in 2007 and is just hitting theaters—is attributable to studio squeamishness over the ’80s sex comedy’s high cocaine content. But it’s just as likely that the Weinstein Company was holding out for the perfect time to unleash its tax write-off. Or maybe the Weinsteins were simply waiting for America’s long-in-the-works love affair with corpulent cut-up/co-star Dan Fogler to begin.