Determined to be Hollywood’s first theatrical release in the coronavirus shutdowns, “Unhinged” is eerily well-suited to the moment at hand. “I don’t know about you, but everybody I know is feeling a little bit unhinged right now,” producer Mark Gill told The Federalist in a Monday interview.
But “Unhinged” isn’t just a perfect thematic fit for COVID-era America. The mid-budget thriller, according to Gill, is exactly the kind of film that could draw people back to theaters, which were struggling long before COVID-19 came along.
Helmed by Russell Crowe, who plays a man driven mad by road rage, “Unhinged” is described as a film that “explores the fragile balance of a society pushed to the edge.” This, Gill notes, was an “accident of timing.”
“Having a kind of hard time lately, I’m sorry,” Crowe’s character says in the trailer, apologizing to another driver from behind the wheel of his truck. “He can happen to anyone,” the tagline warns ominously.
That should resonate for obvious reasons, but Gill believes “Unhinged” is timely for yet another reason—people are eager to watch thrillers. The Hollywood veteran pointed to a recent poll that asked people what they “most want to see” when theaters reopen. They said thrillers. When they asked why, researchers found, in Gill’s words, “They really suck you in. The best, they cause you to forget your problems or just get engaged in a story.”
The head of Solstice Studios, Gill is on a mission to make movies for movie theaters—not couch consumption. What does that look like in 2020? “You have to be better than something that somebody can stay home to the watch, right? So the bar for satisfaction has gone up,” he told me.
“You need to satisfy audiences well enough that they’ll get off their couch,” Gill said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean making blockbusters. “In the last 15 years I’ve been hearing ‘Oh, the only thing that’s going to be around movie theaters is blockbuster movies and everything else is gonna go away.’ And for the last 10 years at least, I’ve been doing these so-called midsize movies that everybody says were dead, and they’ve been working out just fine.”
The theatrical future, Gill believes, will involve “a combination of big movies and some of these mid-size ones.” The “in-betweeners,” movies that aren’t art-house films but earn critical praise, have already shifted to streamers, he explained.
“All you see now is even if you make a larger movie, if it’s bad, it’s going to get killed, and that didn’t used to be true. It used to be if you’re big enough and it’s bad, people kind of went anyway. Not anymore,” observed Gill. This is what fuels the intense risk aversion in Hollywood. Gill, a former Miramax executive, noted “the terror” gripping industry mavens who think, “If I make something original that doesn’t work, am I going to get fired?”
But, on an optimistic note, ultimately “the audience always gets what it wants,” Gill believes. “Maybe a little dissatisfied in the short term, but in the longer term, it’s just gonna get what they want, and what they want is, ‘Please not more of the same old thing. If you’re gonna have a sequel to a prominent piece of intellectual property, please make it different enough so I don’t feel like I’m watching the same thing over again.'”
The end of that short-term slump can’t come soon enough, and pent-up demand for fresh stories, coupled with heightened interest in thrillers and an itch to get off the couch could be a recipe for success for “Unhinged,” which is now set for an Aug. 21 release. But will people actually go? Gill thinks so, pointing to a “phenomenal result over the weekend” from the film’s premiere in partially reopened (Crowe-friendly) Australia.
In the United States, yet another survey found “about 80 percent of moviegoers are comfortable with the safety provisions that are outlined by the theaters,” Gill said, noting the poll also found, “the older you get, the less comfortable you are.” According to the poll, 40 percent of that 80 percent “want to go to the movies, no matter what it is when they open.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding! That’s pent-up demand,” Gill exclaimed.
Asked about his conversations with theater chains, Gill said they’re “feeling reasonably good” about reopening. When they do, moviegoers will be distanced by purchasing tickets ahead of time online, mask requirements, low-touch concessions, and staggered showtimes.
Gill is optimistic the film will open this month. “I think it’s gonna be okay,” he told me. When that happens, he expects a “more moderate open,” with “a lot of room to run,” not a “big opening” with a quick drop off.
Asked if other folks in Hollywood are glad to let “Unhinged” serve as the guinea pig in the Great Reopening Experiment, Gill replied, “They are.”
“It’s one of those moments where everybody’s rooting for you,” he added.
On the production side, Solstice is bumping into the same challenges other productions are battling amid the shutdowns. Gill isn’t sure where they’ll be able to shoot an upcoming Ben Affleck flick. “There’s nowhere in the U.S. where you can get a movie of that size done and satisfy all the insurance and various other health and safety protocols that are essential to do this—testing three times a week and quick response to the test, and so on. So sadly, we’re having to look at Vancouver and London as possible locations,” he explained.
The COVID-shutdown was only the icing on the cake for Hollywood, which is clawing its way through a dark period, marked by the acceleration of streamers and the whirlwind of the Me Too movement.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years,” Gill reflected. “I am a recovering employee of Harvey Weinstein. I lived that directly. And certainly I’ve lived through the rise of the streamers and COVID.”
“We used to we used to say everything changes more in 18 months than it used to in five years,” he noted. “And now I would say everything changes more in three months than it did in five years. It’s bananas.”
Given Gill’s experience working for Weinstein at Miramax, I wondered how he looks back on that experience as someone who had a front-row seat to the mogul’s misdeeds. Has Hollywood learned its lesson? “It’s a lot better,” Gill believes.
“Almost everybody I ever worked for was a serial screamer, so this is quite a nice change,” he told me.
“The knock-on effect of this has been the industry that has a lot of people, who are just people in power who have just yelled and screamed at everybody for years, what’s fascinating to watch now is, okay, everybody can have a little blow-up once in a while, that’s fine,” said Gill. “But if it’s somebody who’s just… treating everybody terribly, they’re starting to really get called on the carpet for it.”
Why did Harvey get away with it for so long? Gill credits the normalization of serial screamers in Hollywood’s culture alongside the “normalization of exploitation, whether it’s people coming out of college being paid not enough to be able to afford to live unless their parents subsidize them, or women being treated very poorly, or just anybody who didn’t have power basically being under somebody’s thumb—and usually there was a thumbtack in that thumb.”
Gill is uniquely well-positioned to reflect on Hollywood’s journey to this trying moment in its history. With “Unhinged” set to test the waters of reopening, Gill just might be in the best position to predict the industry’s future as well.