The first new movie since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered movie theaters opens around the country on Friday. An audacious road rage movie, Unhinged stars Russell Crowe as a man who relentlessly hunts down an impatient woman after she honks and passes him at a traffic stop.
In an interview with the Australian TV show This Morning, Crowe said his character is completely unsympathetic and cruel. ”There’s no justification for this man’s actions,” he said. “You know, at first I read it, I didn’t think I wanted to do it. But I started to realize that we’re seeing these explosions of white hot rage more and more in society.”
Crowe praised Solstice Studios for releasing the film this summer as the coronavirus pandemic continues. “They’ve decided to take the risk to go first,” he said. “You know, somebody’s got to do it.”
Unhinged has already opened in 25 countries, many where it’s been No. 1 at the box office, including the U.K., Germany and Australia.
Mark Gill, who heads Solstice Studios, said he and his team decided early on in the pandemic they also wanted to be the first new film in the U.S. since the lockdown began.
“We’re the only ones opening,” he says. “We’re doing something in a time of more uncertainty than ever, so we’ll find out if we’re geniuses or idiots. But at the moment, it feels like it was probably the right thing to do.”
Gill said his strategy has drawn a lot of attention for Unhinged. But he knows that people in the U.S. may think it’s still too dangerous to gather at indoor movie theaters. “There’s also the risk that they’ve just gotten so comfortable with streaming movies that you can’t get them out of the house — so there are a lot of risks,” he said. “Polling suggests there is a ton of pent-up demand. Forty percent of the audience that was surveyed the other day said they would go to the movies no matter what it was when they open. So OK, that would be incredible.”
Gill said where the film has opened internationally, word of mouth spread quickly. Instead of opening big and falling off, the box office has grown. That’s meant the movie’s running in theaters longer than it would have in pre-pandemic days. He said hopes the same happens in the United States.
“In lot of ways we’re sort of the opening act for the main event,” Gill said. “Theaters are opening up, you know, with a $33 million movie that, you know, if we earn $30 million at the box office, we’ve done very, very well. And then a couple of weeks later, they get ready for a much bigger movie like Tenet.”
Like Unhinged, the U.S. premiere of Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet was rescheduled several times over the summer. For now, it’s set to open on the U.S. Labor Day weekend, sparking hope for cinema’s comeback.
“I can’t overemphasize enough how important those new movies are,” said John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO, the National Association of Theatre Owners. “Fans like to come out to the cinemas to see new titles. That’s the whole point. So the business has been either zero revenues for most companies or just minimal.”
Fithian said a few independent movie theaters and drive-ins have been able to continue operating by showing classic films or rereleases. Some have gotten by selling popcorn curbside. But he said 150,000 movie theater employees were furloughed. Fithian said by this Friday, 70% of the movie theaters in the U.S. will be back in business, though not in Los Angeles or other cities where the coronavirus numbers are still high.
“We know that once we get the new movies in and once people see how safe the environment is, that the numbers will grow,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting started.”
Fithian said his organization worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent epidemiologists to come up with safety protocols: Theatergoers must wear face masks and be physically distanced from each other; employees must get their temperatures checked regularly; ushers must wipe down seats between screenings. Fithian said most theaters will operate at half-capacity, alternating showtimes to avoid crowds in lobbies.
Still, Fithian said the movie theater business may never be the same. Recently, the biggest theater chain, AMC, made a deal with Universal that enables it to release its movies on premium video on demand soon after they premiere. It may shrink the amount of time Universal films play in AMC theaters, but Fithian said he’s confident audiences will still want to go to the movies.
“People are sick and tired of watching streamed movies and television shows at home,” he said. “It’s the shared social experience that I think is the thing that will draw people back.”
Solstice Studios’ Gill said he only ever wanted to show Unhinged on the big screen. And Crowe told Australia’s This Morning that audiences are eager for a cathartic thriller: “We want to go back to the place where the crazy stuff happens on the screen, not actually in our lives.”