“Unhinged” boasts a terrific trailer, but nobody would have picked this unassuming low-budget genre effort to be the first post-pandemic major new release of 2020. Newbie theatrical distributor Solstice Studios is making a bold move with its debut release: The company is opening this $33-million psychological thriller, starring Russell Crowe as a man with serious road rage, on as many available screens as possible on July 1, 2020.
At that time, most theaters will be tentatively ramping up with repertory fare. Why on earth would anyone throw this modest entry — one that looks like prime VOD fodder — into the start of an uncertain return to indoor theatergoing?
The answer is part desperation, part opportunism. No fledgling production or distribution company plans on launching its first new movie during a pandemic. As Mark Gill, the Solstice president and CEO (a veteran executive of Miramax, Warner Independent Pictures, and Millennium), looked at his options, in a world of unknown knowns, he figured, he might as well grab the bull by the horns.
It’s a bold gamble for a movie that, relative to many larger films eying the release schedule with caution, has nothing to lose. If “Unhinged” manages to generate even modest returns in theaters this summer, it will prove the viability of Gill’s model for movies with lower profiles to lead the charge as moviegoing works to return to some sense of normalcy. That even gives it a slight edge over Christopher Nolan’s bigger-budget “Tenet,” still set to open on July 17, which means it could wind up as the only summer movie tentpole released this summer. If “Unhinged” hits theaters first, it’s unlikely to steal Nolan’s thunder — but it would have bragging riots as the true pioneer during an unprecedented moment in the history of the exhibition business.
The movie was originally set to open on September 4, until “A Quiet Place Part II” landed on the date. “When a supertanker heads toward a little speed boat you get out of the way or get crushed,” said Gill, who looked hard at all the dates through fall, winter and into 2021. “We had a little good solid thriller, not a $200-million movie. I started to think, ‘Where else could we go?'”
Gill checked in with Nordisk in Scandinavia, which has opened some theaters, as multiple countries — from Australia to Taiwan — ramp up for business. Nordisk told him, “This is a memo from your future.”
Gill talked to National Association of Theater Owners chief John Fithian about state public health department safety guidelines. Gill was reassured that theaters are following guidelines for socially distant seating (capacities of 25-50%), staggered show times to reduce crowding, and more time between each show to allow for increased cleaning. “I was persuaded that theaters are being thorough and detailed and careful,” said Gill. “We have seven weeks to prepare for this.” That said: “Lots can change between now and then. Therein lies the risk.”
Gill also commissioned a private poll of frequent moviegoers that he cannot share. (He said the poll of 1000 moviegoers who go to six or more movies a year shows huge interest from frequent moviegoers in returning to theaters.) “People want something to distract them from what’s been a difficult time,” he said optimistically.
Written by Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye,” “Disturbia”) and produced by Lisa Ellzey (“Warrior” and “Kingdom of Heaven”), “Unhinged” imagines the worst that can happen when two stubborn people (Crowe and Caren Pistorius) piss each other off in traffic. The film directed by Derrick Borte (“American Dreamer”) is the first movie in the $20-80 million range to be developed, produced and released wide by Solstice Studios, a theatrical company founded in October 2018 in partnership with Ingenious Media.
Gill knows that it’s possible that major city centers like New York and downtown Chicago won’t be open by July 1. But he’s counting on good word of mouth ahead of the five-day July 4 holiday weekend — with no competition — to boost ticket sales. “We can do a moderate $30 million at the box office,” said Gill. “We have a lower threshold of success.”