The traditional summer blockbuster season has been mostly canceled by the coronavirus, with some of the most anticipated releases—Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel’s Black Widow, Disney’s live-action Mulan, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet—delayed because of pandemic-mandated theater closures.
Studios have moved some titles to fall and held others over until next year. Things remain in flux. But while most movie companies were postponing releases, one studio founder was moving his up.
Mark Gill is ready to make Solstice Studios’ debut release, the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged, the first new movie back in theaters.
“There’s a lot of meaning attached to opening up in movie theaters again,” Gill says.
“I think it’s really powerful. It’s powerful not just for us, but for people from all walks of life. It has some connection to the feeling like, ‘We’re going to get through this eventually.’”
The nation’s largest theater chains have delayed reopening multiple times as coronavirus cases have spiked in the U.S. AMC and Regal cinemas are now eyeing mid-August openings, with Unhinged slated to premiere August 21.
The thriller stars Crowe as a deranged driver who takes a road-rage incident to its most disturbing extreme. And while it may not exactly be feel-good fare, it makes audiences’ hearts race, and that emotional connection is what filmmaking is all about, Gill says.
“You make movies so that people can enjoy them, not just so they can sit on a shelf somewhere,” he says. “They’re trying to move people emotionally and give them some sort of an engaging experience.”
Gill first felt that emotional pull as a slightly terrified 10-year-old watching The Godfather alongside his parents in Michigan. Sitting in that theater, he was drawn into a gangster’s lair, so close he could practically feel Don Corleone’s breath on his face.
The experience made Gill a lifelong movie lover. But despite moving to Los Angeles, he didn’t think about pursuing a career in film. He studied journalism at USC and got a job as a reporter.
“I just didn’t love it,” Gill says.
A chance opportunity landed him at Rogers & Cowan, a powerful LA publicity firm where Gill was tasked with marketing movies.
“It was pure accident,” he says. But it lit a fire of inspiration that would shape his professional trajectory.
Gill set out to give himself the film education he didn’t get in college. He started with the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. He asked his friends and colleagues to recommend obscure titles. He explored the filmography of each director whose work he was assigned to promote.
Gill worked his way up in public relations, becoming an executive at Columbia Pictures, then Miramax, where he shaped campaigns for Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, Life Is Beautiful, and Frida.
He helped launch Warner Independent, ushering March of the Penguins and Good Night and Good Luck into theaters and awards recognition.
“After that, I got out of the art-film business because it was starting to look much too difficult,” Gill says.
He was ready to start his own enterprise, one that allowed him to pay homage to the genre that first got him hooked on movies: thrillers.
Gill established Solstice Studios in October 2018 with the aim of financing and producing three to five mid-budget films a year for international theatrical release.
“We can do four things very readily: thrillers, science-fiction, action and, believe it or not, love stories,” he says. “Those are four genres that travel the world very nicely and work very well in this mid-budget space we occupy.”
See also: Mark’s list of essential movie thrillers
He assembled his executive team throughout 2019 and produced Unhinged, the movie that would introduce his new company to the marketplace.
Then the coronavirus struck.
Before the pandemic, Unhinged was set for a September release. But when theaters closed and studios started shifting their calendars, the anticipated horror sequel A Quiet Place II landed on the same fall weekend.
“When a supertanker is bearing down on your little speedboat, you better get out of the way or you’re going to get crushed,” Gill says.
(A Quiet Place Part II has since moved to 2021.)
Gill thought about pushing his film to later in the fall, but as the industry shuffled its schedule of releases, the remaining fall and winter weekends were looking more and more crowded.
Then he thought: Why not go first?
Gill talked to the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, who said members loved the idea of having a medium-sized film to warm audiences back up to the theater experience ahead of would-be summer blockbusters.
It made good business sense for Solstice: The film could ride the publicity boost that comes with being first in theaters. And because of its modest budget, the safety regulations that require theaters to operate at limited capacity wouldn’t hurt the film’s bottom line.
“The theory was that we would be the warm-up act for Tenet and Mulan and so on — a mid-budget movie that was going to bring people back but didn’t have to earn $200 million to break even,” Gill says. “If we earn $30 million at the box office, we’ve made a modest profit. We’re okay.”
Besides, moviegoers are ready to come back, he says. Solstice Studios polled fans in May and found 80 percent of respondents said they’d definitely return to theaters when they reopen this summer, no matter what’s playing.
“That shows you the hunger for it,” Gill says.
The release date for Unhinged has already changed three times as theater reopenings have been delayed. Twice-postponed Tenet is now set to premiere internationally on Aug. 26 and domestically on Sept. 3. Disney changed Mulan’s release date three times before delaying it indefinitely.
Characterizing Unhinged as “the canary in the coal mine,” Gill sees the film’s pole-position release as a hopeful gesture that heralds an eventual return to normalcy.
Movies are a thread in the fabric of our lives and the communal experience of seeing them in theaters is something that can’t be replicated at home. There’s just something magical about the movie theater, Gill says.
“I miss the magic,” he says. “I haven’t been to a theater since early March and I miss it terribly. I think the two dirtiest words in the English language right now are ‘my couch.’”