Theater chains across the country have been gearing up for months in preparation for the big day after several plans for reopening were postponed due to COVID-19 spikes in various cities but this time the opening is for real – and “Unhinged,” the road-rage thriller starring Russell Crowe, is offering to test the waters of just how eager moviegoers might be in its spot as the first major theatrical release.
“I actually am pretty optimistic that the theater industry will bounce back," Mark Gill, CEO of Solstice Studios – the company behind the film -- told Fox News.
He continued: "And I realize there may be some exceptions and because these are really hard times, there may be some businesses that have to go under. But I think it looks like as long as this late summer and fall works out that people are going to hang on and the thing that we've all seen so much lately is that the two worst words in the English language right now are 'my couch.'”
“The last thing I want to do is stay home one more night,” Gill added. “So it's certainly true that streamers are really valuable on providing a great service and people like to do that some of the time, but not all the time. People want to go out of the house, too.”
Gill said the $33 million film saw success during its international release, which he said the company has used as a barometer in gauging the potential box office success “Unhinged” could have during its debut in the U.S.
“Europe is probably a more slightly different story than Australia, which also opened. Australia, I think is probably a little bit closer comparison,” Gill explained. “And there are two reasons for that: one of them is the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is, is shut down. So that's about 30% of the theaters, which sounds pretty similar to what we're probably facing here. And the other thing is, just in surveying moviegoers, Australians were more like Americans – which is there is more of immediate pent-up demand to go out, whereas Europeans have tended to be a little bit more cautious. So that'll probably be more of a slow burn.”
Added Gill: “In Australia, they just did phenomenally well. I mean, they did better than we would expect them to do in non-COVID times. So let's hope that happens here.”
Despite the positive outlook of the release of “Unhinged,” which sees Crowe as a commuter-turned-road-rage stalker, Gill admitted he’s both “terrified and exhilarated” at the prospect of debuting a film during such trying and uncertain times.
“Well, it's simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating because on the one hand, nobody knows anything and who even knows what could happen,” he said. “And on the other hand, we made this movie for $33 million and if we do about $30 million at the box office, then we're in good shape. So it's not some $200 million film that has to earn a fortune at the box office.”
The studio executive further explained that the release plan for “Unhinged” quickly shifted so not to compete with large franchise offerings like “A Quiet Place 2” and “Tenet” and also said there was no chance Solstice would go the route of releasing the film digitally as was the case with “Trolls: Worlds Tour” and what will happen with Disney’s “Mulan.”
“We are set up to be a company that puts movies in theaters. So that would kind of go against everything that we do,” Gill avowed. “And we were sitting on September 4 and then 'A Quiet Place 2' moved there and then we just thought, 'Maybe we'll move to next year ' -- and it just looked really crowded. So, we said, 'What if we went first?'”
Gill said in deciding to forge onward with the “Unhinged” release, the studio received great feedback and appreciation from struggling independent cinemas, many of which were just days from closing their doors for good.
“We were always looking at it as something that we would do in theaters and one of the nice things about that has been that the theater owners are really going out of their way to help promote it because they're thankful that we're supporting theaters when it seems like too many people are running away from them,” he said.
“And these are the fabric of America – small businesses, right? I mean, so many theaters are independently owned and operated by a family or two people who make a partnership. But they're small businesses,” Gill maintained. “There are three big chains, of course, but there's a lot of other sorts of small businesses that depend on the flow of movies and we hear from them all the time saying, 'Thank you so much for doing this. We really need movies to survive.'"
Gill said Crowe and company have been eager to build up the film ahead of its release, especially taking into consideration the 225 people Solstice employed to make it happen during filming in New Orleans, La., and its post-production in Los Angeles.
“He's been phenomenal about it. He kind of has doubled down on there's normally an amount of publicity that you could reasonably hope the star of a movie would do if they were really excited about it and they like the movie, which he does,” Gill said of Crowe. “And so we got that but we got double that."
Added Gill of the Oscar winner: "He just is so leaned into this and part of it was he said, 'If you're given the opportunity to go play in the road while there's no traffic, you don't wait for the traffic to come back and then go play. You play now.' And that's our view, which is, this is the moment where there's no competition and so it's not 'Do you want to go to the movies this weekend? It's simply, 'Do you want to go to the movies?' And there's going to be one choice."
Gill pressed that he has no doubt the vast majority of the American public want to leave their homes – even if for a few hours of cinematic escape from the real world.
“What's interesting is I think what's happened is people are so excited about being able to go back to the movies in general, and if you just happen to be first, it's a pretty good thing. And that looks like it's going to happen,” he said before quipping, “I have my fingers crossed and yes, I have a very deep pit of my stomach. A little bit of both.”
Although “Unhinged” will debut across 2,000 theater locations, which is vastly fewer than it would under a normal release, Gill said he is simply happy Solstice was able to employ some amid the pandemic while creating a film “worthy of going into a theater.”
“It's been terrible. Yeah, it's been really terrible and it's terrible in most countries in the world,” he lamented. “I mean, Europe is just starting to bring production back. You know, we're not there yet, really here in the US – there's a little going on here and there. And if you're one of the hundreds of thousands of really talented freelancers who go into making a film and TV shows, there's been virtually no work. It's horrible. It's been really bad.”
“The stuff that we do really needs more people,” he continued. “The movies that are worthy of going into a theater, it's pretty rare that one of those is filmed in any other way than with a pretty big crew and a heavy employment list and a lot of casts and all that. So right now, it's really hard. There are so many places, most of the country, you can't gather enough people to do that. And it's just – it's tough right now. Hopefully, it will get better but obviously, we have to get to the place where the public health departments allow us to go back to work.”
Given the stringent production guidelines that have since been levied in order for film production to resume, Gill said with the aid of those in the know, the protocols have finally been set in place.
“It's all been worked out between the producers and the studios and the unions. And that's actually with a lot of help from scientists and epidemiologists,” he explained. “So that's all been worked out, I think. And everybody's comfortable with it. It took several weeks. I think about a month for everybody to figure out exactly how to do it but we all have a set of standards that we abide by that whenever we're allowed to do it again, we know what to do.”
"Unhinged" is set to be released in the U.S. on Aug. 21.