When “Unhinged,” a road rage thriller starring Russell Crowe, opens in the U.S. on Aug. 21, it will be the first major theatrical release since cinemas closed last spring.
It’s a bold move — one that could backfire spectacularly — but Solstice Studios, the company behind the $33 million movie, says the decision to premiere the film during a pandemic was born out of necessity. When the coronavirus shuttered cinemas, studios moved back the debuts of one major movie after another. That meant “Unhinged” found itself jockeying for space with major franchise releases.
“The schedule is always full, but it only became more full,” says Mark Gill, the company’s CEO. “I didn’t have much choice. I’m not sticking around to get run over by ‘A Quiet Place 2.’ There are all these supertankers out there, and my film is a tiny boat. If I don’t move, I’m going to get crushed.”
Hollywood is watching closely to see how the film performs, seeing it as something of a canary in the coal mine. If “Unhinged” draws a crowd, it will signal that people are desperate to get out of their houses after months of social isolation. If it fails, it will serve as a warning that audiences view moviegoing as too dangerous until there’s a cure for COVID-19, or a vaccine.
“Unhinged” will bow across 2,000 locations, roughly 1,000 fewer venues than a film its size would usually open on. Crucially, theaters in some major markets such as New York and Los Angeles have yet to open, potentially robbing the film of millions of dollars in revenue. In places where cinemas are back in business, it will screen in auditoriums that are at reduced capacity in order to maintain social distancing between audience members.
However, the hope is that with fewer films in the marketplace, “Unhinged” will be able to show on nearly every screen in a particular multiplex. The studio also believes that the movie will have more staying power, attracting customers over several weeks as opposed to putting up huge numbers in its first few days of release.
“They’re paving the way for all the other movies,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Pro. “The crucial thing will be to let it play for a while. Its success can’t be determined by its opening weekend.”
In the wake of COVID-19, many studios have been selling off movies to streaming services that were once intended for theatrical release — Amazon bought “My Spy” from STX, Netflix picked up “The Trial of the Chicago 7” from Paramount and Apple bought “Greyhound” from Sony. But Solstice says it never considered moving “Unhinged” to a digital platform.
“We established this company to be a theatrical studio,” says Gill. “Doing our first movie on a streaming service wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
Director Derrick Borte says that the film, which depends on scares and surprises, plays better on a big screen. “Before coronavirus hit, we showed the film for test audiences,” says Borte. “It needs to be experienced in an immersive, communal way to be appreciated.”
Solstice has a lot riding on “Unhinged.” The film is the first one it will unveil since launching the company in 2018 with $400 million in capitalization. The studio’s goal was to make three to five mid-budget thrillers, comedies or dramas annually — the kind of movies that major studios have largely abandoned in favor of comic book fare. However, the pandemic has scrambled some of those plans. The studio was preparing to shoot Robert Rodriguez’s “Hypnotic,” an action thriller with Ben Affleck, in April, but filming was postponed indefinitely when the virus started spreading in March. The company is hoping to begin filming this fall, but may have to move production to Canada or Europe, where coronavirus cases are less widespread and testing is more accessible.
“COVID has cost us six to nine months in our business plan,” says Gill. “It might end up costing us a year. But at least the creative community has re-engaged recently, and we’re starting to pitch projects to people. For a while there, it was not even worth it to make an offer. Everyone was ducking for cover.”
But the new studio is also looking for ways to profit in unprecedented times. In the case of “Unhinged,” Gill believes that his film will benefit from being the first new movie to hit theaters in five months.
“There’s not a lot of competition,” he says. “It won’t be ‘Hey, do you want to go to the movies this weekend?’ It will be ‘Do you want to go to the movie?’”
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