Update: In the wake of other shifts on the summer movie calendar–namely the postponement of the Christopher Nolan tentpole Tenet and the Disney remake of Mulan–Unhinged is now being released on July 31.
Back in March, Solstice Studios was gearing up for the first test screening of its upcoming psychological thriller Unhinged.
In the film, Russell Crowe plays a man who goes to very dark and scary lengths after a mom (Caren Pistorius) leans on her horn at him in traffic for a little too long. The movie, directed by Derrick Borte (American Dreamer, The Joneses) is the debut release for Solstice, which was formed in 2018 with a mission to produce, finance, and distribute a slate of three to five midbudget films a year (as well as acquire another or cofinance another one or two). The company, which is backed by $400 million in funding, seeks to fill a white space in an industry increasingly dominated by blockbusters on the high end and cheap-to-produce genre films on the low end. Solstice, by producing films with budgets of between $20 million and $80 million, felt like it could break through the formulaic nature of what has dominated the multiplex.
Unhinged is Solstice’s first test as a company, and president and CEO Mark Gill—an industry veteran who was formerly the president of Miramax Films and Warner Independent Pictures—was understandably eager to see how audiences felt about the film.
But the coronavirus pandemic deepened in mid-March, and the film’s test screening was canceled. “We were three days shy of a test screening when we had to shut down,” Gill says.
That might have been a worrisome sign for the film, which was then set for release on September 4—or at least a setback that put the brakes on things for a spell. Suddenly, people’s minds were on things much more serious than movies, and the idea of going to a public movie theater and sitting cheek-by-jowl with strangers became a very scary proposition. Not to mention that movie theaters themselves were shutting down. Making matters worse, A Quiet Place 2, the sequel to the 2018 hit horror film, suddenly moved into Unhinged’s September date.
But rather than sit back, wait things out, and hope for the best, Gill dove into action. After talking to John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, and conducting some in-house research at Solstice, he boldly switched things up and moved the release date for Unhinged up to July 1—in other words, what’s traditionally been the biggest moviegoing weekend of the year, one that is typically reserved for blowout summer blockbusters.
Besides moving out of the way of A Quiet Place 2—”When you’re in a small speedboat and a giant tanker is coming at you, you get out of the way,” Gill says—the move was based on a bet that by July, people will be hungry to go out and see a Hollywood thriller.
Solstice’s daring pivot offers the first glimpse at how one movie studio, at least, is approaching one of the biggest threats to the entertainment industry in its history, and it marks the first new theatrical release since the onset of the coronavirus earlier this year. By deciding not only to march on but to run full throttle into the storm, Gill and Co. hope to prove that there will indeed be a safe way to return to the movies, and that people’s desire to leave their homes and experience a form of visual escape will start paving the way for a return to some kind of normalcy.
Indeed, what happens with Unhinged come the July 4th weekend isn’t just about whether the film succeeds or fails. It’s about how close the movie industry—and moviegoers—are to returning to the pre-coronavirus state of the world.
As Gill says, “What this is about is getting the [moviegoing] habit back.”
Dare to be counterintuitive
When Gill heard about the tanker ship, in the form of A Quiet Place 2, coming at Unhinged, he and his team began looking at other release dates. They considered the fall and even pushing the film into the spring of 2021.
But with other studios delaying their films’ release dates due to the coronavirus, things were starting to look very crowded. On top of which, theaters’ plans so far are to operate at between 25% and 50% capacity in order to allow for social distancing, throwing in another logistical curveball.
Then Gill looked at the summer. Two blockbusters—Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan—were hovering over late July release dates, but otherwise the coast looked clear.
He picked up the phone and called Fithian. His first question was: “Will theaters be open, and if they are, what are their plans to make it safe for people?”
During their conversation, Fithian walked Gill through the safety precautions that theater owners were discussing, including a chessboard seating chart, whereby people who don’t attend together are separated by empty seats next to and in front of them; staggered showtimes, to avoid crowds of people coming and going at the same time; touchless pay methods; and prepackaged concessions.
Gill then threw out the idea of releasing Unhinged, a $33 million movie, on July 1.
Fithian said he liked the idea but offered to talk to theater owners to gauge their reaction too. When he got back to Gill, he said that theater owners were unanimously supportive of the plan, and that it played into their own three-pronged approach to reopening and creating “a system in which they could step back up to playing blockbusters,” Gill said.
The idea is for theaters first to roll out older films when they reopen, and then to gradually start playing midbudget films (such as Unhinged), before working up to “big bruisers” such as Tenet and Mulan.
Satisfied that theaters were addressing safety concerns, Gill then wondered: But will anyone be willing to go? To answer this, Solstice conducted a survey of 1,000 moviegoers, asking them if they would be willing to go see a movie in a theater in early July. Gill expected about 40% to 50% of people to say they were game.
Instead, 80% said yes.
“It was interesting,” he says. “They said that first, they could see things being better by then in terms of the pandemic. But people are also dying to get out of the house.” Based on this feedback, he says, “We decided to go ahead and be the canary in the coal mine.”
Capitalize on your assets
Gill admits that Unhinged’s relatively low cost makes the bet a lot less risky than, say, if the film had a $200 million budget. If Unhinged makes $30 million, it will break even.
Also going for it is its genre. Gill says that he looked at surveys of what types of films people will most want to go back to theaters to see—and thrillers were at the top of the list.
“Some people like romance, some like horror. But the thing people are most looking forward to seeing are thrillers,” he says. “The reason why is because when they’re good, they really pull you in and grab your chest. You can forget about all the problems in the world. They’re emotionally engaging and take people on a journey. They offer a little relief.”
At this point, it’s still unclear how many theaters, exactly, will be up and running by July, even though that is the month that some of the big movie-theater chains, such as AMC and CineMark, have targeted for reopening. Even in states such as Florida, where theaters have been given the green light to resume business so long as they keep capacity at 50%, not all theaters are operating, as they continue to work out safety precautions. Major metropolitan areas such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will presumably be the slowest to grind back into action due to how badly they’ve been hit by the pandemic.
But Gill says that while he would love for all of the country’s theaters to be open in July, he’s not concerned about geographic limitations. “This is not an art film just for people who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” he says. “This is an everybody movie. It should play well across the country, from big cities to small towns.”
That said, he adds, “There are so many unknowns as far as how many theaters will be open and how many people will go. This is not for the faint of heart.”
Pull out all the stops
For now, the plan with Unhinged is to go big. Although marketing has its own share of challenges—advertising at live sporting events is limited, and there’s no playing trailers before films in theaters—Solstice is leaning in hard where it can. Perhaps there are no live baseball or basketball games, but the movie will be promoted during NASCAR and UFC events.
Solstice also has aggressive plans for TV and digital promotions, where they’ll have a captive audience, given that people are stuck at home and glued to their devices.
“If you’re trying to bring back a habit,” Gill says, “you don’t want to do it halfway. You’ve got to go for it.”
So far the best word of mouth has come simply from news that the film was jumping into the fray. After Solstice announced the date change for the film in May, Unhinged generated 210 million media and social impressions that first week. The buzz also helped the film’s trailer get 28 million views that week—more than five times what Gill expected.
Curveballs, however, continue. Just last week the country again convulsed in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic killing, causing nationwide protests, some looting, and curfews imposed in major cities.
The unrest, should it continue, could severely affect the public’s feelings toward returning to public life—and movie theaters—with or without the coronavirus.
Gill says that he’s hopeful that the protesting would “increasingly become peaceful and quiet.” (Last Thursday, curfews in Los Angeles were lifted.) “We’re still four weeks out. Although this has been a tragic series of events and I have sympathy with the peaceful protesters, I hope for the sake of our country that it can be done peacefully and without bodily harm.”
The drama has only added to a film rollout that Gill calls “one of the most strange, out-of-body experiences I’ve ever had. When you talk about the fog of war, usually you can see 60% of the field. You never have perfect information. But right now I feel like I can barely see in front of my nose.”