A Hit by 2020 Standards, ‘Unhinged’ Says a Lot About Covid America

Everything about the new Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged,” a film that ended a five-month drought for new movies and helped reopen American cinemas, was unlikely.

The script was written before it had a buyer and sold at auction, a rare occurrence these days. It was made by a brand-new company, Solstice Studios, led by a man who is betting on brick-and-mortar theaters during a streaming boom. And it arrived during the worst-in-a-century pandemic.

The coronavirus has given the road-rage thriller a special place in Hollywood history. It’s serving as a test case, revealing both the current appetite for new movies and Americans’ wider fears about entering public places. Against that backdrop, it did a little better than might be expected, generating $4 million in North American theaters over the weekend.

A Hit by 2020 Standards, ‘Unhinged’ Says a Lot About Covid America

“Unhinged” offered a ray of hope to the industry, while also showing there’s a long road to recovery ahead. 

“‘Unhinged’ performed near the top of its expectations,” Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., said in an email. “What was really telling was that the top five venues for ‘Unhinged’ were all drive-ins — four of them in California. What that tells me is, yes, people want to see movies...in the safest way possible.”

“Unhinged” was born out of an idea to try something old in a new way. Solstice Chief Executive Officer and co-ounder Mark Gill, who previously was president of Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax Films, wanted to form a studio that would go against the current grain in the entertainment business.

His notion was that there was still a place in the cinema for adult dramas and non-franchise thrillers, which have increasingly been diverted to Netflix and other streaming services. To pull that off and enrich his backers — Ingenious Media and a wealthy U.S. family that’s asked to remain anonymous — he planned to rely on an old Hollywood formula: Keep the budget modest and spend as much as 40% of it to hire one big star.

The “Unhinged” script was one of the first movies that came to Solstice, and is its first release. A writer named Carl Ellsworth, known for “Disturbia” and “Red Dawn,” who told horror magazine Rue Morgue he was fascinated with the idea of rage, was auctioning it off in March 2019. The Solstice team read it on a Friday and owned it four days later. Crowe was hired in May, and it was filming in July, practically warp speed for Hollywood.

Movie math is always complicated, but it became even fuzzier in the months leading up to the release of “Unhinged.” The film was initially scheduled to premiere in September. But then “A Quiet Place Part II” was moved to that time by Paramount Pictures, part of an industrywide shake-up for release dates.

Gill at first was distressed, with the looming competition and the closure of movie theaters across the world, but then realized he had an opportunity. Though cinema owners indicated they’d reopen in the summer with limited capacity, and some states with large coronavirus case numbers wouldn’t allow theaters to open at all, “Unhinged” could still benefit from debuting in the midst of the crisis.

By being the first new movie to come out as theaters reopened, “Unhinged” would have close to no competition. And each cinema could play the film on more screens than normal, with no other new movies out, counteracting the fact that individual auditoriums within the theaters would probably be mostly empty to adhere to social distancing rules.

That also had its complications. The movie premiere date continued to shift as cinemas struggled under the weight of new virus cases — from July 1, to July 10, to July 31, and then to Aug. 21. “I always think the movie business is like playing chess on the ocean,” Gill said. “Well, now it’s like playing chess on the ocean in a tsunami.”

Still, he’s happy with the result. Solstice targeted $30 million in box office sales by the end of its North American theatrical run, against a $33 million budget. The movie debuted abroad before premiering in the U.S., and the studio expects it to have generated $8 million in ticket sales by Thursday. Gill said those figures mean it’s on track to reach its goal.

Even so, the film’s reliance on drive-in business shows that regular theaters are still a tough sell. People don’t have to sit in a room with strangers for hours, and some critics harped on that theme.

“Not worth risking a trip to the theater,” said independent movie reviewer Susan Granger.

Crowe, embracing the controversy, sent out a tweet with stats about how “Unhinged” was No. 1 in Australia and the Netherlands, and included a poster that said: “I Saw ‘Unhinged’ at the f---ing theater!”

None of this has caused Gill to waiver from his devotion to the big screen, though he said he’d be open to selling a film to a streaming service if it’s the right opportunity. Like others in the industry, he thinks ultimately people will fill the seats of the cinema again. He just doesn’t know when.

“The dominant narrative now is that the streamers are going to pick off movie theaters,” he said. “I never believed that, because I’ve always thought that people, at least some of the time, want to get out of the house.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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