Russell Crowe stars in “Unhinged.”

Solstice Studios

Actors covet those times when they stand alone on a stage, sharing their craft with a captive audience. 

Films debuting in movie theaters rarely get an opportunity for a solo. Typically, one or two new movies vie for an audience’s attention along with holdover films from previous weeks. 

As the coronavirus continued to spread in the U.S., extending the length of time movie theaters were shuttered, veteran film producer Mark Gill saw an opening to have Russell Crowe’s upcoming feature “Unhinged” seize this once-in-a-lifetime shot. 

“If we were going to wait for every last theater in America to be open, it wouldn’t be until next summer,” said Gill, who has more than 30 years of experience in the film industry. 

The decision meant the film would have to wait in limbo while big budget features like “Tenet” and “Mulan” dictated the official reopening of major theater chains. But, it also meant the film would be able to slip into theaters ahead of these big pictures, avoiding steep competition and snag the attention of audiences desperate for fresh content.

Hurdles along the way

“Unhinged,” which cost a little over $30 million to make, will enter theaters Aug. 21, just as popcorn machines start to warm up again and help convince audiences that it’s safe to return to the movies. Of course, this strategy has not been without its pitfalls.

Gill said the film’s upcoming release “has been by far the toughest” in terms of marketing and distribution. And that statement comes from a man who was once the production chief at Warner Bros. Independent and Miramax, and has a stack of credits that include “Pulp Fiction,” “The English Patient,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

In 2018, Gill co-founded Solstice Studios with a handful of other industry stalwarts and acts as CEO and president of the company. Its ultimate goal is to produce between three and five movies per year for a global audience, focusing on films in the action, thriller and action-comedy genres, which translate easily to audiences outside the U.S. Budgets are expected to fall in the low-to-mid-tier range of $30 million to $80 million. 

“Unhinged” will be the first feature it releases. Ben Affleck is attached to another thriller film it is working on, called “Hypnotic,” that was supposed to begin filming in April.

Solstice was in post-production on “Unhinged” when the coronavirus outbreak caused the studio’s offices to shutter in mid-March. The film follows a young woman and her son as they are harassed and chased by a man (Crowe) following a road rage incident.

“I came back to Virginia, where I had a composer that was in Spain, sound and editorial in LA and visual effects in Vancouver and two actors in Australia that we were still doing work,” director Derrick Borte said.

Borte created his own command center and screening room in his home to keep tabs on all the elements of post-production.

“I don’t know if I’d want to do it again, unless I’m forced to,” he said. “But at the same time, it was great to know that it’s possible.”

Bringing ‘Unhinged’ to theaters

Initially, the team at Solstice looked at delaying the film’s initial September release, but ultimately, made the decision to be one of the first in theaters once they did reopen. The target had been a July debut, but that date shifted to August when it became clear that major theater chains were not going to reopen last month.

With most of the competition pushed to 2021, “Unhinged” will arrive in theaters next week and really only compete with the 10th anniversary rerelease of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and a handful of legacy titles like “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Back to the Future.” The following week Disney’s “The New Mutants” debuts and then over Labor Day weekend, Warner Bros. “Tenet” finally arrives. 

In total, the thriller should play on about 2,000 screens in the U.S., with around 70% of theaters open to the public in 44 states. In a more normal time, there would be more than 5,400 movie theaters open in the U.S. While the film wouldn’t necessarily play in all of those locations, there would be significantly more places available for Solstice to showcase the film.

The film has been released already in around 20 countries. As a result of the pandemic, audience size is often capped around 25% to 50% of theater capacity, which is weighing on attendance.

In those countries where it is being shown, Gill said, the drop in ticket sales from week to week is only around 8% to 12% instead of the typical 40% to 50%. Prior to the coronavirus, a film would have a big opening weekend and then ticket sales would crater in the second week. 

During the pandemic, however, films are having a longer tail. Likely because fewer people can attend each showing. Fridays are no longer the big sales days, but rather Sundays. Outside the U.S., consumers over the course of a weekend are hearing from friends or social media that local theaters are open for business and the experience was enjoyable. They then buy tickets at the end of the weekend instead of at the beginning, Gill said, based on his talks with international theater chain operators.

“The answer is, thank God, that people will come back to theaters,” Gill said. 

Additionally, in theaters where “Unhinged” would have traditionally only been afforded one screen, it’s getting two and, in some cases, three, he said. Ahead of its U.S. debut, the film has garnered about $3.2 million from international ticket sales, the majority of which has come from Australia.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how the film would have performed in time without Covid-19, but the road-rage thriller did top the box offices in the U.K. and Ireland in its first weekend, beating out Disney’s holdover of “Onward,” which was intially released back in March, and the rerelease of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”

“That communal experience, where all of the crazy s— happens on the screen in front of you, not actually in your real life, it’s a relief for people,” Crowe said.

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