When the Russell Crowe road-rage thriller Unhinged hits more than 2,000 theaters across North America on August 21, the film’s primary selling point will be that it’s one of a kind. With blockbuster season effectively ankled because of continentwide multiplex shuttering, and the year’s megalithic event films migrating into late 2020 or spring and summer of next year, Unhinged is set to emerge virtually unchallenged as the first wide-release movie of the post-lockdown era.
Barring the kind of 11th-hour date shift that forced Warner Bros. and Disney, respectively, to reschedule Tenet’s and Mulan’s theatrical debuts three times each this summer, Unhinged will arrive at a time when catalogue hits Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Marvel’s Iron Man (2008) are topping the weekend box office, and the race to become the Summer of No Blockbusters’ most talked-about film largely took place in viewers’ living rooms.
“The dirtiest words in the English language right now are my couch. Everybody’s tired of it,” says Mark Gill, president and chief executive of Solstice Studios, the distributor of Unhinged. “The thing that occurred to us in terms of positives is that we would be the only movie in theaters. So it’s not ‘Hey, do you want to go to the movies?’ It’s ‘Hey, do you want to go to the movie?’”
Opening in Germany on July 16 and taking the theatrical onramp to other parts of Europe as well as Australia, Asia, and Latin America on July 31, the $33 million film features Crowe as a claw-hammer-wielding cuck identified in the credits only as “The Man.” After being honked at in traffic a touch too rudely by Rachel, a single mom and freelance hairstylist played by Caren Pistorius, the deranged divorcé loses whatever grip on reality he had and embarks on an ultraviolent cat-and-mouse car pursuit that leaves almost anyone close to Rachel awash in blood. “I don’t even think you really know what a bad day is,” Crowe snarls at her early in the film, which has been getting mixed reviews. “But you’re going to find out!”
Unhinged was originally set for release on September 4, but Solstice pushed the title to July 1 in response to Paramount’s decision to shift A Quiet Place Part II from March into the Labor Day Weekend frame. (The John Krasinski movie was later pushed back to a 2021 release.) Beyond simply sidestepping competition with a surefire-hit sequel — and relocating to a cultural dead zone when most sporting events have been canceled, nightclubs remain closed, and family vacation plans are indefinitely postponed — the move put Unhinged in a position to monopolize theaters, at least for the short window before Christopher Nolan’s Tenet had been expected to suck out all the box-office air on July 17. But when continuing pandemic chaos further postponed the reopening of America’s biggest theater chains this summer, and the release of Nolan’s highly anticipated thriller with it, Solstice hopscotched the release of Unhinged to July 10 and then July 31, the date Tenet next vacated. Then, once Warner Bros. seemingly once and for all redated Tenet’s domestic drop for September 3, Solstice — an upstart indie with no distribution track record to date — hinged its fortunes on August 21.
“They want to be the trailblazer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “It makes a movie that might otherwise be considered a smaller movie exponentially bigger because of what it represents.”
An executive at a rival studio takes a dimmer view of Unhinged but points out that, as a lower-budget title, it doesn’t need to do Avengers: Endgame–level box office in order to qualify as a success by playing in theaters longer and with less competition thanks to the new realities of the COVID-decimated cinematic marketplace. “It’s a second-rate movie that they’re trying to have ride the notoriety of being the first wide release,” says the executive. “Movies that are open are doing decent business. A lot of the country still feels impervious to [the coronavirus].”
Although it remains anyone’s guess as to whether audiences will feel safe enough braving infection to revel in the spectacle of a rampaging, southern-drawling Crowe, an internal survey commissioned by Solstice this spring revealed that 80 percent of respondents said they would “definitely” return to the movies if theaters reopened in July. (The results reflect those of a similar EDO survey released in May.) Toward that end, Unhinged took in $230,000 (£174,901) across its July 31 opening in U.K. cinemas — a relatively robust figure when you consider the country’s total box-office returns had been $253,000 (with only 15 percent of theaters returning to business) just two weeks earlier.
But prerelease data can do only so much to ease studio jitters at a time when Hollywood is rewriting its movie-release and marketing strategies almost daily. With the caveat that opening-weekend grosses will no longer provide any reliable measure of a film’s commerciality for the foreseeable future, the studio remains committed to releasing a “first” this summer with “all the exposure that comes with that.”
“Obviously, you can have all the polls you want where people say, ‘I want to go to the movies.’ But will they actually show up?,” Gill says. “We don’t know. It will take a week or two for them to get comfortable to show up. So will things be much slower or more subdued than normal? I don’t know. Will there potentially be other things that we can’t foresee happening? It seems like every time we blink, the whole world is topsy-turvy.”
“It is a very, very tense time,” he adds. “That’s the reason why we were willing to do this and take the risk. There aren’t ten other people saying, ‘Oh, let’s go and do that as well!’”
Update, Aug. 12: According to a press release from Solstice Studios, Unhinged is indeed opening on August 21 in select theaters. “No opening in this time period will be largely about the opening weekend,” the release reads. “A significant number of additional theaters plan to open in our second week, and with a relatively light schedule of competitive films, the expectation is that Unhinged will open more modestly but stay in theaters longer.”