In an alternate and undeniably better universe, the summer movie season would be winding down right about now. Studios would be tallying the takings from tentpoles like "Black Widow," "F9" and "Wonder Woman 1984." Box office observers would be making their lists of the season's winners and losers. Moviegoers sated on spectacle would be looking ahead to the headier prestige fare of the fall.
Instead, Hollywood finds itself trying to salvage what little remains of a summer battered to near oblivion by the coronavirus pandemic.
This weekend, three movies will open exclusively in theaters across much of the country, the first new films to do so since multiplexes were forced to shut their doors five months ago. (For historical perspective, at the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, an embargo was placed on the release of new films for one month.) The thriller "Unhinged," the YA adaptation "Words on Bathroom Walls" and the heist film "Cut Throat City" — three fairly small movies that might otherwise have been overshadowed by big-budget behemoths — now find themselves leading the charge back to what Hollywood hopes is a sustainable future, paving the way for the long-delayed domestic opening of Christopher Nolan's mind-bending action film "Tenet" on Sept. 3.
The new titles arrive as the three major exhibition chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — reopen this weekend in 100 to 200 locations each, according to screen listings, with reduced capacity and increased cleaning and safety protocols. That will push the total number of open U.S. theaters over 1,500 (including around 300 drive-ins), up from about 1,100 last weekend, per box office measurement firm Comscore. Additional phased reopenings are expected to roll out leading up to Labor Day weekend and the release of "Tenet."
Theaters remain closed in a handful of states, however, including the critical markets of New York and California. And it is far from clear to what extent audiences spooked by months of dire headlines about the pandemic are ready to venture back into the roughly 70% of them that are open. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo defended keeping his state's theaters closed earlier this week, saying that "on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk."
Given the stakes for the entire industry, the performance of each of this weekend's cinematic canaries in the coal mine will be closely scrutinized. "None of us can resist the temptation to look at that first weekend and try to figure out what it means," says Mark Gill, chairman and chief executive of Solstice Studios, which is releasing "Unhinged." "There's nothing like walking into the white-hot spotlight and hoping that you remembered to put your clothes on."
Here is how — and why — these three unlikely films stepped into their starring roles in this unprecedented summer.
Initially slated to open in September, "Unhinged" stars Russell Crowe as a man at the end of his rope who turns a fleeting road-rage incident into a rampage of terror against an innocent woman. In May, with the summer release calendar scrambled, newcomer Solstice Studios saw an opportunity to showcase its debut feature by making it the first film to welcome moviegoers back to theaters, shifting its opening to the July 4th weekend ahead of two studio tentpoles: Disney's "Mulan" and Warner Bros.' "Tenet." "The idea was that we were going to be the warm-up act," Gill says.
When a new surge in cases scotched theaters' reopening plans, Solstice shifted "Unhinged" to late July and eventually to Aug. 21, still hoping to take advantage of the lack of competition. "There are all sorts of uncertainties," Gill says. "No matter where you decide to go right now, there’s way more risk than usual. But the plus side is, it’s a little easier to get your message out, and hopefully we have a better chance when you’re not competing against 15 other movies."
With sports teams playing to empty stands and schools across the country shifting to remote learning, many in Hollywood fear that audiences will choose to remain safely ensconced in their homes, where they have a nearly endless supply of content to stream. But Gill is confident that there is a pent-up demand for the communal experience of moviegoing. ("Unhinged," which is already open in countries including the U.K., Australia and Canada, has drawn mixed reviews and is targeting the widest release among the newcomers. It will also be screening in drive-in theaters, including 10 in California.)
"My view is that the two dirtiest words in the English language right now are 'my couch,' " Gill says. "We’ve been hearing movie theaters are dead since the 1950s when television got powerful, and it’s still not true. I think this idea that people don’t want to get out of their house is not correct."
Despite the country's fearful and downbeat mood — or perhaps because of it — Gill believes that a film like "Unhinged," which is stuffed with R-rated violence and unbridled rage, could strike a chord. "What’s really interesting is that one of the surveys somebody did asked people what kind of movies they’d most like to see when the theaters are open again, and the answer was thrillers," Gill says. "I would have thought it would be lollipops and rainbows and unicorns. But I was wrong."
'Cut Throat City'
Heist action pic "Cut Throat City," the third feature from director RZA, was set to receive its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, with an April theatrical debut to follow, when the pandemic upended both plans. Rather than going VOD or devising a hybrid release, distributor Well Go stuck with a theatrical-only opening — and got caught in the "Tenet" ripple effect, moving its date to July 17 before landing on Aug. 21. “We just felt like it was a film that needed to be seen on the big screen," says Jason Pfardrescher, Well Go USA's executive vice president of digital and theatrical distribution.
Set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the film's lineup, including stars Shameik Moore, Terrence Howard, Wesley Snipes, T.I. and Ethan Hawke, and its genre trappings, which Well Go expects to draw younger crowds, made sticking with a theatrical plan easier. "I can say that if we had a film that skewed older we definitely wouldn’t be putting it out now," Pfardrescher says.
The film opens Friday on about 400 screens nationwide, including City of Industry's Vineland Drive-In in California. Pfardrescher expects that the buzz that comes with being one of the first titles in reopened theaters will contribute to awareness later this year when "Cut Throat City" hits VOD, home video and other post-theatrical platforms. "We’re big believers in that theatrical window," Pfardrescher says. "We believe it does set up the ancillary rights and the downstream rights from an awareness standpoint and ultimately uplifts the performance of the film in its life cycle.”
The company has not one, but two new films entering U.S. theaters this week: Korean zombie sequel "Train to Busan: Peninsula" — which Well Go opened in theaters in Canada earlier this month — will also hit U.S. screens. It opened in South Korea in July, where theaters have been back up and running for some time, and topped the box office. But while Well Go will have two genre titles in theaters at the same time, the expected audience overlap is low. "There’s a level of crossover between the two films," Pfardrescher says, "but it’s not to the extent that we felt we were going to be cannibalizing our own box office."
The company is hoping that being among the first and only distributors taking the gamble to release new theatrical fare will translate into longer screen engagements, with less competition from other titles taking up screens. And given the extraordinary circumstances, Pfardrescher says, new openers don't bear the weight of the same performance expectations typical of a pre-pandemic release.
"We are viewing it as more of a marathon style release than a huge smash out of the gate with a shorter tail," he says. "We recognize that there’s not going to be a glut of content that’s playing simultaneously, like you’ll likely see next year, and that gives us an opportunity to stay onscreen longer. So the need to just blow it out of the water from a per-screen average standpoint is not really there."
'Words on Bathroom Walls'
Adapted from Julia Walton's YA novel of the same name, "Words on Bathroom Walls" stars Charlie Plummer ("All the Money In the World") and Taylor Russell ("Waves") in the tale of a high schooler diagnosed with schizophrenia who starts over at a new school and strikes up a romance with a classmate. The release came together quickly this summer when Roadside Attractions acquired the film from LD Entertainment in June, but an initial Aug. 7 opening was moved to Aug. 21 as the major theater chains pushed back their own reopening plans. When "Words on Bathroom Walls" opens Friday on more than 900 screens domestically, the Vineland Drive-In will be the only California location showing the title.
Roadside Attractions had already been forced to scramble once when the coronavirus curbed the planned April theatrical release of its Katie Holmes-starrer "The Secret: Dare to Dream," which eventually debuted on PVOD on July 31. But unlike the older-skewing "The Secret," "Words on Bathroom Walls" is primed for the younger moviegoers that distributors hope and expect will return to theaters first. "We specifically chose a film that is a young adult film," said Roadside Attractions Co-President Howard Cohen, "because we thought the older audience might be a little more hesitant to come out right away."
The release plan for the PG-13 "Words" hinged on several factors beyond the willingness of its target audience to return to theaters. A bonus was the film's relative mainstream appeal, which Roadside is banking on to resonate in markets across the country even without screenings in places like New York or California, where hardtop movie theaters remain closed. "It’s very poignant and I think it will speak to teenagers in this time," Cohen says. "It’s about finding your center, and a kid dealing with some mental health issues, and I think a lot of teenagers are dealing with mental health issues in this period — and, it’s a love story."
For smaller distributors, having to nimbly adjust to new strategies and industry shifts is nothing new, and metrics of success can be measured differently than a blockbuster — more so in such unprecedented times. "Part of being an independent distributor is looking at movies a little more surgically, in that we’re looking at movies that are for different audiences and not movies that have to be for everybody in order to succeed," Cohen says. "So this is in keeping with that philosophy."
But with most distributors deferring to exhibitors to determine how safe it is to go back to the movies, will they return to theaters themselves? "Going back to movie theaters is something I’m comfortable with as long as great precautions are taken," Cohen says. "And I’ll be reading the information along with everybody else; if people say it’s a source of transmission, I’ll have to look at it differently.
"I think the best we can do is figure out the most careful we can be, and then try and find some kind of normalcy in our lives, and I consider movie theaters something that is an integral part of our life."