Will Russell Crowe’s ‘Unhinged’ draw people into movie theaters during the pandemic?

Russell Crowe stars in the action thriller "Unhinged."
Russell Crowe stars in the action thriller "Unhinged."

Credit: Solstice Studios

Credit: Solstice Studios

It's one of two films released in theaters this past weekend as AMC and Regal reopen their doors

For five months since the pandemic began, movie production companies have postponed releases ranging from the latest James Bond movie to “A Quiet Place” sequel. Others have moved films to streaming services, most notably Disney’s “Mulan.”

But two films are taking the proverbial plunge into the unknown this weekend: a Russell Crowe road-rage popcorn thriller called “Unhinged” and an indie teen romance called “Words on Bathroom Walls.” Both AMC and Regal Cinema, the two largest chains in North America, are re-opening hundreds of theaters nationwide this weekend after months of darkness.

“It’s nice to have someone willing to go first to test the waters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, which provides media analytics. “Audiences can test drive the new theater-going experience.”

Theaters are touting their safety measures to try to allay fears, including limited capacity in theaters, masked employees and thorough cleaning between screenings.

In metro Atlanta this weekend, about 30 theaters will feature “Unhinged,” the first wide theater release in the United States of a new film since March. On a smaller scale, “Words on Bathroom Walls,” which stars Lithia Springs High School graduate Walton Goggins, will be in about 20 theaters in metro Atlanta. (UPDATE: The film opened with an encouraging $4 million gross in its first three days in the United States.)

“Unhinged” has already been released in 24 other countries since July 16, bringing in $8.6 million to date, according to Box Office Mojo, a website that tracks box office grosses. Its highest grosses have come from Canada, Australia and Germany. Reviews are mixed with a 51 percent Rotten Tomatoes positivity rate among critics as of Friday.

In the film, beleaguered single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is running late dropping her teen off at school and honks her horn at a vehicle that doesn’t move quickly enough after a red light turns green. The occupant, played by Crowe, pulls up to her car while in traffic and requests an apology. She refuses. Already in a funk over his screwed-up life, he takes umbrage over Rachel’s attitude and reeks revenge in what might be fairly characterized as road rage on steroids.

This is the first film produced by Los Angeles-based Solstice Studios. Mark Gill, Solstice CEO and president, said he considers himself a contrarian, focusing on mid-budget movies that many studios now eschew.

After the pandemic began, Gill decided in the spring to contact theater chains and offer up “Unhinged” as a guinea pig for reopening purposes. If the virus hadn’t happened, “Unhinged” would have debuted September 4.

“The bar of success is lower for a film like this versus one that costs $200 million,” Gill said. “We’re the warmup act for the main performers. This gives theaters time to get everything running smoothly.”

Gill said he’s aware the marketing campaign for “Unhinged” is not just for the movie itself but for the theater-going experience in general, to announce to the world that this is an option again.

In a sense, the competition at this stage is much lower than normal. “Unhinged” under normal circumstances, would be vying for attention versus a dozen other major films.

“Unhinged” director Derrick Borte had mixed feelings when Gill told him his plans: “I was partially excited because I want people to see the film, but at the same time, we have this responsibility and hope that exhibitors and everyone involved are handling this in the right way.”

Gill said box-office expectations are difficult to gauge. The movie was first supposed to debut July 1, then was moved back to July 10, then July 31. The surge in cases in June and July forced the delays, but Gill now feels, with caseloads and hospitalizations dropping in many states, this is an OK time to get the film in theaters.

“At the end of the day, if we get $30 million [in worldwide grosses], we’ll have a party nobody will be able to come to,” Gill said.

Based on somewhat dated surveys, many Americans are still nervous to spend extended time inside any building where strangers share space with them. It also doesn’t help that six states currently don’t allow indoor theaters to open at all, including the two most populous: California and New York.

Locally, Georgia remains a hotspot for the virus, even with trends moving in the right direction.

The Springs Cinema and Taphouse in Sandy Springs was the first movie theater in metro Atlanta to open way back on Memorial Day weekend. Over the weeks, owner Brandt Gully has aired more than 80 different classic films but said over the first two months, business was less than 10 percent of normal inside.

He has compensated by running a pop-up drive-in in the parking lot several times a week. He said that has been consistently popular. He has had several schools, churches and companies reserve nights for drive-in events.

LISTEN: accessAtlanta Podcast: Drive-in concerts and other alternative entertainment

He has also finally begun to see a notable pick up in indoor attendance the past two weeks.

Gully said he isn’t sure how well “Unhinged” will do. Two more new films are coming out next weekend: Disney’s “New Mutants” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” He is more hopeful for the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” set to debut Sept. 3 after multiple delays.

“Nolan has been supportive of the theater model and wanted it to be a theater first film,” said Gully. “That’s appreciated.”

Dergarabedian, the box office expert, said an opening weekend gross isn’t all that important under these circumstances. “Unhinged” could stick around a lot longer in theaters than normal and perhaps build an audience over a span of weeks: “The metrics to judge success will be different and delayed.”

The film’s primary driver — road rage — is ironic given that, currently, traffic is less of a problem for millions of people now working from home. But Borte, the director, said people are full of rage about other subjects such as social justice, economic insecurity and pandemic politics.

“My focus as the director was to translate the script into something entertaining and hopefully inspire some conversation after the fact about some of the issues we address in the film,” he said.

He also was able to hold a screening before the pandemic began in a full theater. “We were fortunate to have 450 people in an immersive communal environment see how the tension worked and how the scares worked. It’s a film that’s meant to be seen in a theater.”

And while Crowe has a prickly reputation that he channels in the movie, Borte said he was a pleasure to work with. “He’s an actor, not that character,” Borte said. “He’s actually quite funny. He lightened things up between takes and had me laugh a bit even during some pretty challenging times.”

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