Hollywood gambles on first major movie release since coronavirus lockdowns
© Skip Bolden

Hollywood is gambling with high stakes this week as theater chains reopen and a major release hits cinemas for the first time since March.

Significant obstacles await the release of Russell Crowe’s new movie “Unhinged” on Friday, with movie executives nervously waiting to see whether viewers are willing to step foot back inside theaters for the first time since the pandemic took hold in March.

“It’s going to be the first test,” Gene Del Vecchio, an adjunct professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business and author of “Creating Blockbusters,” told The Hill. “It used to be in the old days — seven months ago — you only needed to convince people your film was worth the price of the ticket. Now you have to convince them that it’s also worth the risk to your life. That’s a completely different dynamic.”

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Mark Gill, the producer of "Unhinged" and head of Solstice Studios, said he made the decision to release the movie now based partly on research finding that what moviegoers most wanted to see upon returning to theaters was a thriller.

“It turns out the reason is a thriller, when it’s well done at least, is the most engrossing story,” he told The Hill. “It’ll suck you straight into the movie and make you forget your problems for a couple hours. We have a lot of problems in the world obviously.”

The movie depicts a woman whose traffic encounter with an unstable man results in road rage and the man, played by Crowe, following her home.

Crowe had a little fun with the concept of terrifying moviegoers in the current environment.

“They say there is a catalyst at the heart of the cinema experience,” Crowe said this week, speaking directly to the camera in a Twitter video promoting the movie. “A social contract. A binding, dynamic power that lifts the cinematic experience into a realm of intimate connection between the audience and the screen and the stars and the heavens beyond.”

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Crowe acknowledged that releasing the film during a pandemic is a “huge risk.”

“Mark [Gill] came up with the idea that there's a lot of things against us but there's a gap in the traffic,” Crowe said in a quote released to The Hill by the studio. “And if we believe in what we have, let's go first and I think it shocked a lot of people — but you can't question the logic. There's gonna be such a traffic jam when things get back to normal.”

“Unhinged” is the first of many new movies that — if all goes well — will pack the fall release schedule, but it comes out amid a slate of older films, like 1975’s "Jaws" and 1985's "Back to the Future."

Even with much of the economy beginning to reopen this summer, studios pushed back release dates and theater chains pushed back reopening several times. One is heavily dependent on the other.

AMC Theatres began reopening theaters Thursday, and Regal Cinemas reopened Friday. The two largest theater chains in the U.S. are requiring masks, limiting capacity in theaters and disinfecting between showings.

Gill believes that the “comprehensive” safety measures theaters are taking will reassure moviegoers. Theaters are reopening in 44 states, he said, and “Unhinged” will be playing on 2000 screens by next week — just short of what he had expected pre-pandemic.

His studio has been closely tracking theater reopenings in Europe and Australia, where moviegoing behavior has changed dramatically compared to last year. Ordinarily, a major release would expect to see a big opening weekend at the box office followed by a 40 to 50 percent drop in tickets for week two. Now, moviegoers seem less likely to rush theaters the first weekend, but films are seeing “slow and steady” ticket sales.

“We made the movie for $33 million,” Gill said. “If we do $30 million at the North American box office by the time we finish our run, we’re happy.”

Warner Bros. is taking a similar strategy to “Unhinged” by releasing "Tenet" internationally before hitting the U.S. market. "Tenet" is opening nationwide in U.S. theaters Sept. 3. It will hit a smaller amount of theaters on Aug. 31.

Disney went in a different direction with "Mulan," which will be available on demand to Disney+ subscribers Sept. 4.

“Both from the studio side and the consumer side, the whole paradigm is shifting,” said Del Vecchio. “That doesn’t mean theaters are going to go away. What it means is as more films go to streaming … we could easily see that the theater business contracts.”

In July, 20 percent of Americans said they'd return to theaters immediately if they reopened, according to a Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll. That number inched up over the summer as, in many states, COVID-19 cases fell and movie theaters pledged strict precautions.

The National Research Group, a polling firm used widely in Hollywood, found that as of Wednesday, 42 percent of Americans said they would feel comfortable going to a movie. The level of comfort is higher among older men and white moviegoers.

Still, it’s hard to predict whether “Unhinged” will be enough of a draw for audiences to overcome health concerns.

“The first film out may take more of a hit,” said Del Vecchio. “There’s an interesting battle between pent-up demand and pent-up fear. ‘Unhinged’ is going to see which one wins out.”