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‘Unhinged’ Producer Bets on Turnout Despite Pandemic


LOS ANGELES — Dotting the Sunset Strip are signs of a time gone by: colorful billboards for movies that were supposed to come out during the summertime blockbuster season, only to be pushed back to September and beyond.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which closed theaters around the world, wreaked havoc on the premiere dates of would-be megahits like “Tenet” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” as well as other films with more modest box-office ambitions, like “Unhinged,” a gritty action film starring Russell Crowe.

But unlike dozens of other movies, “Unhinged” will indeed have a theatrical release in the United States this summer, signaling a return to business for Hollywood.

The original plan was for a July 1 premiere. The date was pushed back twice more before the film was scheduled to appear on Friday in more than 1,800 theaters in the United States and Canada, a release that came about largely because of the stubbornness of Mark Gill, an independent film producer who was hellbent on getting it to the big screen.

“Unhinged” will be the largest new offering in North American theaters this weekend, when 26 percent of theaters in the United States and Canada are scheduled to be open, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade association. Another new film, the teen drama “Words on Bathroom Walls,” from Roadside Attractions, is the second-biggest release this weekend, appearing on some 900 screens.

While other Hollywood executives decided they had no choice but to reschedule, Mr. Gill made a priority of beating the competition to theaters. “There is no question that the ‘first-mover’ advantage has been a big deal,” he said.

He believes in the film — a throwback to the thrillers of decades ago that sent Charles Bronson into scenery-trampling mode — but said he could not predict how many moviegoers would show up this weekend, when theaters across the country have heightened safety restrictions.

“It’s all bananas,” Mr. Gill said. “That’s the crazy thing. I have no idea.”

“Unhinged” has already been released outside the United States. In Mr. Crowe’s home country, Australia, it was the No. 1 box-office attraction three weeks in a row, earning $1.7 million, and it has performed well in Germany and Britain. Last weekend, it started its run in Canada, appearing in nearly 300 theaters.

All told, it has brought in roughly $8 million in global revenue. To turn a profit, Mr. Gill said, the film needs to gross $30 million from North American audiences.

Even before he decided to push for a theatrical release during a pandemic, Mr. Gill showed a contrarian streak among his Hollywood peers. While other producers worked around the rise of Netflix and other streaming platforms, he started a production house, Solstice Studios, devoted to making medium-budget, action-packed movies with big-screen audiences in mind.

“For 10 years people have been telling me those movies are dead,” Mr. Gill said. “And for 10 years, I’ve been doing just fine with them.”

He was a producer of an old-fashioned box-office success, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a 2017 thriller starring Ryan Reynolds. It cost $43 million to make and earned $176 million worldwide. And he pulled off the same trick with the “Olympus Has Fallen” franchise, a trio of action movies starring Gerard Butler. Each had a production budget under $50 million and earned at least $140 million in theaters.

“Unhinged,” which shows Mr. Crowe going on a tear after a road-rage incident, is in the same mold. The subject matter may not sound like escapist fare, but Mr. Gill said his research suggested that audiences were hungry for this kind of thing.

“It’s ridiculous how strong our tracking is,” he said. “I thought people would want lollipops and rainbows. Turns out I was wrong.”

When more than 1,000 are dying from the coronavirus each day in the United States, a high turnout for “Unhinged” may bode well for the much-anticipated “Tenet.” Warner Bros., the studio behind that film, has settled on a Sept. 3 release date in the United States and a Sept. 4 premiere in China after pushing back the premiere date repeatedly throughout the summer.

Mr. Gill started Solstice Studios nearly two years ago with the market strategist Vincent Bruzzese and two fellow producers, Andrew Gunn and Guy Botham. The plan was simple: Create audience-friendly movies for anywhere between $30 million and $80 million, a range all but abandoned by major studios intent on the next mega-blockbuster, and get those films into theaters.

Because they were going against the trend toward streaming, they had a hard time raising funds. Mr. Gill said he had courted more than 600 potential patrons to find two who were willing to put up significant money: Ingenious Media, a division of a London private equity fund, and a private investor.

“I heard plenty of times that I was crazy,” Mr. Gill said.

He said he tried to persuade filmmakers to work with his studio rather than take their projects to digital companies by telling them their work will not be lost in the streaming shuffle.

He said his pitch went something like this: “There are a few movies on the streamers that get enormous attention, an advertising budget and so on. Can you name five of them? Nobody ever can. Netflix made 82 movies last year. I hope you are one of the three or five that people can name.”

Before the pandemic, Hollywood had already shifted much of its focus toward streaming and home viewing, a trend that has only accelerated in recent months. With theaters shuttered, movies that were headed to the big screen, including “Trolls: World Tour” and “The King of Staten Island,” instead premiered on streaming platforms.

In another sign of the shift, Universal Pictures reached an agreement last month with the world’s largest theater chain, AMC Entertainment, to make its films available for streaming three weeks after their theatrical debuts. Under the old system, movies typically played exclusively in theaters 90 days.

Mr. Gill believes a significant number of film fans continue to prefer the traditional moviegoing experience.

“One of the most interesting pieces of data I’ve seen is, there are a lot of people who have realized that they actually like going out sometimes,” he said. “My favorite comment was, ‘The two dirtiest words in the English language are “my couch.”’”

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