Russell Crowe's new movie will be first to screen in theaters after coronavirus. Will audiences show?

Ryan Faughnder
Russell Crowe's 'Unhinged' arrives in theaters July 1, ahead of major studio movies, including Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet.'  (Solstice Studios)

In recent weeks, Hollywood studios and movie theater chains have held out hope that cinemas will be back in business in July, and that audiences will be eager to return.

Veteran film producer Mark Gill is betting the launch of his new studio on whether that dream becomes reality.

Gill's company Solstice Studios will release the new Russell Crowe psychological thriller "Unhinged" in cinemas on July 1, the former Miramax executive said Tuesday. Although it's unclear how many theaters will be open by then, the film will be the first major new theatrical release since the coronavirus outbreak shuttered U.S. multiplexes in mid-March.

"There’s a risk attached to it, obviously," said Gill, 57. "We launched our company about 18 months ago to make movies for movie theaters. I think you need to stand up for theaters at any time, really, but especially at this time."

The $33-million movie's premiere will mark an early test of whether audiences are itching to return to movie theaters after a long period of limited entertainment options and copious home binge-watching. "Unhinged" stars the "Gladiator" and "A Beautiful Mind" actor as a man whose road rage gets way out of hand.

It's an especially risky debut for Hollywood-based Solstice, which Gill founded in October 2018 with $400 million in funding, including $150 million from London-based financier Ingenious Media. The company aims to produce three to five movies a year, mostly with production budgets from $30 million to $80 million. It also hopes to acquire a handful of movies for U.S. release. Solstice has 59 employees.

Setting the stage for its first movie now may seem like a Hail Mary play at a time when much of the country is still in the throes of a public health emergency. The planned debut is more than two weeks before Christopher Nolan's new movie "Tenet" hits the multiplex on July 17, which will be followed by Walt Disney Co.'s live-action "Mulan" remake on July 24.

But Gill said he's not deterred. He said he was heartened by a survey his company commissioned to determine the willingness of audiences to show up at cinemas. Of the 1,000 moviegoers who were polled, 80% said they wanted to go back to movie theaters in July. Moviegoers are defined as people who go six times a year or more.

"I think there’s a lot to be said for pent-up demand to get out of the house," Gill said. "I think that’s very, very real."

July is about the earliest major theater chains are expected to reopen in the U.S. Plano, Texas-based Cinemark Holdings recently pinpointed July 1, a Wednesday, as its target for getting back in business. AMC Theatres, the world's largest cinema circuit, has also signaled that it hopes to open its doors that month.

States including Georgia and Texas have eased restrictions to allow theaters to operate at limited capacity, but not all chains have taken the governors up on their invitation to resume operations. Most cinema owners don't want to reopen without major studio productions to put on their screens.

To hear it from Gill, though, the gamble to release in July was not a decision he took rashly. He said he landed on the release date after consulting with the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, the Washington-based lobbying organization, as well as the nation's largest exhibitors, AMC, Regal and Cinemark.

The domestic release of "Unhinged" is expected to follow or coincide with its debut in countries including Australia, China, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan, the company said.

The still-potent disease adds a unique hurdle to the movie's box office prospects. Social distancing restrictions will probably still be in place in many areas, and analysts don't expect moviegoing to return to pre-pandemic levels until there's a vaccine, if ever. Theaters that open are likely to do so with limited seating, robust cleaning schedules and mask requirements.

Theaters are expected to reopen with 25% to 50% capacity, with seats blocked off in a checkerboard format in many locations.

And even without fears of the coronavirus, there was no guarantee "Unhinged" would be a hit. Distributors have struggled in recent years to find audiences for mid-budget movies, as the audience for such films migrates online.

On the plus side, the new movie won't be facing competition for screens. Until "Unhinged," the theaters that reopen will probably be playing older titles to get customers used to the idea of going back.

"It won't be, 'Do you want to go to the movies,' it'll be, 'Do you want to go to the movie?'" Gill joked.

Gill was previously president of Avi Lerner's Millennium Films, where he worked on movies including "The Hitman's Bodyguard" and the "Olympus Has Fallen" series. He left in 2017 after a failed attempt to buy the company. Before that, he presided over Warner Bros.' short-lived specialty label Warner Independent Pictures.

Until his abrupt departure in 2002, Gill was the L.A.-based president of Miramax Films, the studio founded by Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob. Gill exited the then-Disney-owned company after clashing with Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was convicted of rape in New York earlier this year.

Gill's credits as an executive producer include "Frida," "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "Mechanic: Resurrection."