EXCLUSIVE: The adage you never forget your first time might be especially true for Mark Gill and his Solstice Studios cohorts, who decided to offer up the first film they financed as the litmus test of whether theater goers are ready to return to U.S. cinemas for the first time since they abruptly went dark in March. Will they return in large enough numbers to make a success of the Russell Crowe-starrer Unhinged? We will get a good sense beginning today. Gill has been resolute in wanting to be that first new film in theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters and put exhibitors on the precipice of financial ruin. The Derrick Borte-directed thriller, which stars Crowe as a character who so personifies extreme road rage he is simply billed in the credits as “The Man,” has already shown some mettle overseas in slow rollouts that preceded today’s U.S. opening. The $30 million budget film has grossed $8.6 million around the world. It has no real competition, other than moviegoer fear, despite the safety and social distancing measures theater chains have put in place. It’s a helluva way to launch an upstart company built around wide theatrical release movies. Here’s Gill discusses how it’s looking.
DEADLINE: You have been determined to make Solstice Studios’ first film Unhinged the first new movie release in U.S. theaters since the pandemic shut everything down. How many times have you pushed back since your original plan to have theaters all to yourself on July 4 weekend?
GILL: We were July 1, then we pushed to July 10, July 31 and now August 21. So, four times.
DEADLINE: What is different now? Theaters in the major markets of New York and Los Angeles still aren’t open and we don’t know when that will change.
GILL: When we made the decision in May, we were told to expect 70 to 80% of theaters would reopen. That’s what [we have today], it’ll be about 70%. At the same time, we’d dated the film for July 1 and a lot of the international distributors wanted to go day and date, or nearby. When the public health situation didn’t improve enough and enough states in the U.S. weren’t going to be open we had to push a few times. Eventually, the international people said, hang on a minute here. Our public health situation is much better and we want to go. We said okay. Germany, Australia, the UK; about half the world has gone so far and done pretty well. Among those, weirdly enough, was Canada just this past weekend. I can’t ever remember Canada going before the U.S. It’s happening for Tenet, and we agreed to have that release come before the U.S. The main premise here is to be first in the U.S. and be really the only widely distributed film in the marketplace because you will get more attention that way.
DEADLINE: What’s going through your mind a few days ahead of release? You’ve done this for years, seem most everything, but you’ve never seen this.
GILL: The best way to encapsulate it is this; I have worked for a whole lot of crazy bosses, including eight years of Harvey Weinstein. This is crazier. Even up until last Wednesday we weren’t certain the theaters were going to open on August 21. Prior to that, it was the horror movie version of Groundhog Day. You wake up and this bad thing happened and that bad thing happened, and this would go sideways. It has been unbelievable and there’s no way to prepare for it, other than keep adapting. As the missiles come in, you keep ducking, or running left. It has really been simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. On the one hand you say it’s fascinating and it requires a lot of stamina. On the other hand, you go, really? Can we have some good news for once, please? And then we finally did. Australia just exploded, it has been phenomenal. It looks like it will do as well as much bigger movies, it is about $2.5 million now and looks like it is headed toward about $4 million. Which is huge for Australia.
DEADLINE: Is that attributable to home court advantage for your star, Russell Crowe?
GILL: It sure doesn’t hurt. It went first, and Studiocanal did a really good job. What has been really interesting is that slow and steady wins the race. It opened, and there was not a big pop, nor a big drop. The best new example of that right now is Canada. You had these crazy restrictions on theaters. No more than 50 people allowed in any theater, in the entire country. When you consider that and its $600,000 gross so far, that’s an excellent result. When we learned it was only 50 seats per theater, we thought we should have a party over that one.
DEADLINE: Let’s extrapolate that to the United States. These chains are ready?
GILL: They have been showing repertory stuff. They had to get their staff trained in security and safety protocols in place. There will be a few that won’t open until August 28. But we expect 44 states to be open and we expect to be on roughly 2000 theater locations in North America. That’s not bad at all. If there are restrictions, like 50 percent occupancy in a complex, you take two screens instead of one. You’ll be able to get the same number of seats you would not have gotten in a non-COVID time.
DEADLINE: What will make this disruptive launch plan a success for Solstice?
GILL: I can tell you exactly. We spent $33 million to make it and sold it internationally. At the end of our theatrical run, if we earn $30 million at the box office in North America, that’s a nice success for us. Would we love to do more? Of course. But this is not a crazy high bar. It’s not like we need to earn $100 million to avoid red ink; it’s a significantly more reasonable proposition. I hope it does significantly better than that. There’s no way to know. Part of the reason we were willing to go first is that the bar isn’t high. If you had to do $100 million to break even, I would really be sweating.
DEADLINE: What option does a New Yorker like myself, or anyone in Los Angeles have if they are eager to see Russell Crowe in a road rage tour de force?
GILL: The answer right now, sadly is, go to a drive in. And write your governor. Those are your choices. It doesn’t look promising in New York. Andrew Cuomo came out this week saying he doesn’t think theaters are as important as bowling alleys, which I have to say I don’t agree with, at all. You’ve got people exerting themselves in a bowling alley and you don’t have that in a theater. The ceilings are lower and you’ve got people facing off against one another.
DEADLINE: Have you lobbied directly to try and get them to see it differently?
GILL: That’s NATO, but we’ve been in touch with them and tried to be helpful. What has been helpful was that we first declared the July 1 date. That made a lot of states take more seriously the requests to open. It did have some impact for us, Tenet and some other movies. It became clear that studios and theaters wanted to open, and can you help us, and the answer from many states was, yes. From most, actually. Also helpful was AMC allowing you to see movies for 15 cents and then remind them, you want to see a new one? Come back tomorrow. Word of mouth is important.
DEADLINE: We saw spots for the film before this date change. How much have you had to buttress your P&A spend?
GILL: We got lucky and we spent what we might have in non-COVID times. Normally, you would spend money and a couple weeks later, people would forget because there are 15 other movies advertising. We found our tracking and audience awareness is the same, weeks later. It hadn’t fallen because there is no other movie getting in the way of your message. Had it been normal times, postponing and coming back would have been a huge financial hit. When there are no other movies advertising, strangely, they don’t forget you.
But we also heavily back loaded the P&A – we’ve spent 60% in the last week. The reason for that, as things kept moving, we didn’t want to keep spending money. We wouldn’t normally put that much at the end but in this circumstance we had to. We still had quite a bit of powder left in the keg. It remained all national. The regional is so much more expensive, per person reached. It was just not economically worthwhile. We did national even though we were aware that in California, New York and a couple other states, people are not able to go.
DEADLINE: How long will the film run in theaters before reaching ancillary platforms?
GILL: We’re on the standard 90 day schedule. That’s contractual with the theaters and home entertainment folks.
DEADLINE: Are there many movies coming that would stand against the possibility you could follow the throwback picture pattern when films held theaters for long runs?
GILL: What’s staggering is you look at the release schedule and it’s like going to a park that is three quarters empty. There are some good ones coming, Greenland and Tenet among them but it’s maybe a quarter of what is normal. Six or eight films instead of 25 or 30. So if ordinarily the run was five to seven weeks, it could be longer.
DEADLINE: Are you finding that exhibitors are open to allocating extra screens to Unhinged in their multiplexes that might otherwise be dark?
GILL: Absolutely. That was one of the things we had to ask before we did this. If they were just going to open one screen, and be at 50% capacity, we would have said forget it, let’s not bother. Thankfully, that has not been the case.
DEADLINE: So what is the most screens you’ll occupy in any multiplex?
GILL: We’re still figuring that out. What we were hearing is a lot of places were opening three or four screens, and they are also prepared to open more if there is sufficient demand. If you’ve got a 12-plex and a demand with this picture to take more of the 12, they will do that.
DEADLINE: Russell Crowe did our video feature The Film That Lit My Fuse and he’s slowly transitioning from an image of a gruff, volatile actor to a very thoughtful meticulous craftsman. How helpful has he been as the selling point for the film? Was it even possible for him to barnstorm in this climate?
GILL: He has done all of it from Australia. Instead of going 20,000 miles, from city to city, he did it all from home and there’s no question he did more than you would customarily see from a person of his stature doing. A good part of that is there wasn’t the exhaustion from travel. My favorite part is I went to visit him on set in New Orleans last summer. He said, we should do some mock public service announcements. We said great. Before we had even gotten to it, he had already recorded himself and created a couple of them, sent them to us and said, what do you think? They were only two of the best I’ve ever seen. He is really talented. You want to talk about a movie star supporting a film, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s him talking to the camera, he wrote them and had someone film him, cut them together, and they are genius, really funny.
DEADLINE: Here are two of them…
DEADLINE: He certainly seems to be leaning in…
GILL: He is easily one of the best actors of his generation, and you would expect that what goes with that would be a certain amount of volatility. We had none of that. We were told, treat him with respect and tell him the truth, listen to what he has to say, all the things we were taught by our mothers at five, and which nobody in Hollywood does. That has worked out really well. The fact that the movie turned out well and his performance is as good as it is, he can see that. It’s human nature that people will turn out when for a movie that has turned out this well. It’s one of the top five actor experiences I’ve ever had, and I worked on more than 300 movies. He was amazing. This is the first movie for a new company, so we are all thrilled with that. It really mattered.
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