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Box office: ‘Unhinged’ debuts with $4 million in first big test of moviegoing in the coronavirus era

Russell Crowe plays a maniacal motorist in "Unhinged."
Russell Crowe plays a maniacal motorist in “Unhinged.”
(Solstice Studios)

After months of dormancy for the major movie theater circuits because of the coronavirus, Hollywood has been awash in speculation over how quickly people will return to the cinema. They got their first clue this weekend through an unlikely test case — a mid-budget hyper-violent road rage thriller starring Russell Crowe.

“Unhinged,” starring the Oscar winner as a maniacal motorist, debuted in roughly 1,800 theaters and grossed about $4 million in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through Sunday, according to studio estimates. The launch marks the first major wide release in American theaters since March, when virtually the entire industry was brought to an abrupt standstill amid the escalating public health crisis.

The question now is, of course, what do the numbers actually mean?

“Unhinged,” a $33-million R-rated thriller with tepid reviews, was never going to be a blockbuster, and it had virtually no competition. In some of the biggest states for moviegoing, including California, New York and New Jersey, indoor theaters remain closed despite the efforts of the cinema lobby, the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, to persuade public officials that cinemas are safe.

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The National Assn. of Theatre Owners is trying to convince moviegoers that film venues are at least as safe as restaurants and churches.

Solstice Studios, the new L.A.-based distributor that gambled on releasing the movie during a pandemic, said the weekend numbers marked a strong result and that the film would probably reach the $8-million mark by Thursday. The early numbers indicate the film is on track to eventually hit its goal of $30 million in North American ticket sales, the studio said. Solstice expects the movie’s domestic footprint to reach 2,300 theaters next weekend. Including Canadian grosses from last week, “Unhinged” has collected $5 million domestically so far.

“We’re breathing a sigh of enormous relief,” said Mark Gill, president and chief executive of Solstice Studios, by phone Sunday morning.

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Indeed, some in the business will surely take heart from the fact that people are willing to go to the multiplex at all. Besides, someone had to be first to test the waters, and theaters have been desperate for new movies to show after weeks of little except oldies and low-budget horror films.

New movies aren’t expected to post large opening weekend numbers for awhile. Instead, analysts and executives say new films will probably open with relatively low grosses and make up ground in subsequent weeks as patrons get more comfortable venturing to their local cineplex. That has been the pattern in other countries where theaters have already opened, Gill said.

Whereas movies normally make the bulk of their grosses in the first couple of weeks, followed by a steep drop in business, new movies should now play for significantly longer in the coronavirus era, Gill added.

“This is looking exactly like the rest of the world, where slow and steady wins the race,” he said.

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Drive-in theaters overperformed for “Unhinged,” particularly in California, where indoor venues remain locked down. The movie’s three top-grossing theaters nationally were California drive-ins in Paramount, Concord and Sacramento, where competition was nil. The movie’s top-performing markets were the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston and Detroit. Theaters in Texas were among the first in the nation to open their doors.

Shari Hardison, Solstice Studios’ head of U.S. distribution, said part of the challenge of marketing the film was making sure locals knew cinemas were even open for business in their area.

“It’s mostly about knowing your theater is open, and that’s where we’re partnering with exhibitors like never before,” she said. “The theaters that have been open longer saw more pre-sales.”

David A. Gross, head of movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, estimated that if the market were fully open, “Unhinged” would have performed “shy of average for an independently distributed thriller.” Continued fears of the coronavirus’ spread were balanced by pent-up demand for new theatrical movies after a long drought, he said.

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“For the handful of movies in theaters, the combined effects of the pandemic are currently neutral to slightly positive,” Gross said in an email. “The equation will change as more and bigger films come into the market.”

A pair of indie movies also tested the audiences’ appetite. YA adaptation “Words on Bathroom Walls,” from LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions, had a $462,050 opening weekend on 925 U.S. screens. IFC Films launched historical biopic “Tesla,” starring Ethan Hawke as the famed inventor, in 108 theaters to $42,000 in sales. This weekend, 2,051 North American theaters were open, including 1,661 in the U.S., or about a quarter of existing U.S. locations, according to Comscore. Well Go USA also opened the RZA-directed crime drama “Cut Throat City,” which grossed $265,000 on 407 screens, and the zombie apocalypse thriller “Peninsula,” with $225,000 on 156 screens.

The bigger test will arrive in the coming weeks as movies such as Walt Disney Co.'s “The New Mutants” hits theaters Aug. 28, followed by Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” the following week, which is Labor Day weekend. Disney inherited “The New Mutants” through its purchase of 21st Century Fox last year, and the release was seen as troubled independent of COVID-19. Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” is widely viewed as the first film with blockbuster potential. Disney originally intended to release “Mulan” in American theaters this month, but recently opted instead to offer it as a $30 premium video-on-demand release via Disney+.

Theaters are eager to show that they’re ready for business. The theater owners association last week hosted an hourlong webinar featuring executives from the nation’s largest exhibition companies — AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Marcus and Imax — to explain their nationwide health and safety protocols, dubbed “CinemaSafe.” The measures include limited auditorium capacity, enhanced cleaning, improved ventilation (whenever possible, anyway) and mandatory masks, though enforcement of the latter policy could prove challenging in a dark theater.

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The Washington-based group said more than 300 companies, including about 2,600 individual theaters accounting for 30,000 screens in the U.S., have signed on to the voluntary protocols. Theater owners have taken pains to argue that seeing a movie is at least as safe as dining at a restaurant, taking a short plane flight, or going to church.

Most indoor theaters have already imposed strict limits on auditorium capacity, though restrictions vary widely state to state. Large chains are capping sales and encouraging social distancing by automatically blocking adjacent seats when people buy tickets online. The lack of available seating did not hurt sales for movies like “Unhinged,” said analyst Gross.

Though the early releases show there are signs of life at the box office, it will take nine to 18 months for attendance to fully recover, he said.

“This weekend is the first step,” Gross said. “The next couple of weeks will show us a lot more.”


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