As Most Studios Sit Out the Pandemic, Some Indies Are Scoring Surprise Box Office Hits

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“Unhinged,” “Marksman” (Solstice Studios, Open Road Films)

As Most Studios Sit Out the Pandemic, Some Indies Are Scoring Surprise Box Office Hits

“The Marksman” and “Unhinged” braved a turbulent box office and helped the studios and filmmakers behind them gain a foothold in Hollywood

There was a point when screenwriters Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz didn’t know if their film, the Liam Neeson thriller “The Marksman,” was even going to hit theaters after it wrapped production in the fall of 2019. The coronavirus nearly derailed release plans until Open Road Films came up with a bold move to release the film in January 2021 despite the ongoing pandemic.

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“When Danny and I first found out that our film was coming out in January, we were shocked. Clearly, it wasn’t what we had anticipated, but how could anyone see this coming?” Charles said. “But the more we talked with the studio and understood the release strategy, we understood how it made so much sense. And we’ve been so pleased to see the film find an audience and continue to do so as we’ve come out of the pandemic this year.”

As it turned out, “The Marksman” became the No. 1 film at the box office for two weekends in January as the pandemic hit its most intense stage. With only 2,387 theaters open in North America — 43% of 2019 levels — the film grossed $15 million domestically. The L.A.-based distributor had scored another Liam Neeson hit last October with “Honest Thief,” which held the No. 1 spot for two straight weeks and grossed an impressive $14.2 million from even fewer open theaters.

And with major studios withholding their bigger budgeted films until more theaters open, some indie distributors have seen a clear benefit from releasing films that have dominated the box office in ways that would never have been possible with a release slate packed with bigger-budget studio fare.

Last summer, the New York-based art-house label IFC Films scored modest hits with horror films like “Relic” ($1.0 million domestically) and “The Rental” ($1.6 million). Upstart 101 Studios hit No. 1 last fall with the Robert De Niro comedy “The War With Grandpa” ($21.1 million). And NBC Universal’s Focus Features had back-to-back No. 1s with “Come Play” ($10.5 million) and the Kevin Costner drama “Let Him Go” ($9.4 million).

“The Marksman” (Open Road)

It’s a boost that Mark Gill at the new label Solstice Studios knows all too well. While he has already made a name for himself in Hollywood as the president of studios like Miramax and Millennium Films, Gill was in the midst of trying to get Solstice off the ground last year when the pandemic hit.

As Disney and Warner Bros. initially rescheduled “Mulan” and “Tenet” for release, Solstice decided to put itself at the forefront of the theater reopening process by releasing its first film, the Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged,” a few weeks ahead of the big blockbusters last August. Doing so would take advantage of the lack of competition and capitalize on interest from moviegoers longing to return to theaters. But as COVID-19 infections began to surge, Gill says he faced the most stressful period of his career.

“We were talking every day with the theaters and keeping an eye on the state of the pandemic. There were so many moving pieces,” he said. “We were unsure at some points whether there were going to be any theaters open other than drive-ins, which is a reason why other studios didn’t want to go first because of how much advertising money has to be locked in up to three months in advance.”

While “Mulan” headed to a premium on-demand release and “Tenet” got pushed to Labor Day weekend, “Unhinged” rolled with the punches and grossed a respectable $20.8 million in the U.S. and $43.2 million worldwide on top of robust post-theatrical home sales. The release put Solstice on the map in a big way, winning over theater execs for its willingness to put films out there when so many had punted.

“It really has made a difference for us,” Gill said. “Theaters remember when you show how far you’re willing to go as a distribution partner.”

As thousands of theaters in the U.S. prepare to reopen, it’s possible that another underdog thriller could enjoy the same success as “The Marksman” or “Unhinged.” While some major studio films are still set for release in the weeks ahead of Memorial Day — including Legendary/Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Warner Bros.’ “Mortal Kombat” and Liongate’s Chris Rock thriller “Spiral” — the move of Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” from May 7 to July 9 has left a programming loss that theaters are trying to salvage. Even with studios starting to program films this quarter, Gill thinks a smaller studio could build goodwill with theaters by releasing now.

“Financially, the theatrical release for ‘Unhinged’ set us up for more profit from on-demand platforms, and that’s partly because there was a lot less competition last summer,” he said, while adding some caution for indies to manage expectations. “Whatever films come out now are going to have a post-theatrical run with way more competition from big studio titles both on streaming and that will be coming out in theaters later in the year.”

The nature of the pandemic and the movie business also means that it will take some time for Gill, Kravitz and Charles to truly capitalize on the industry clout they’ve built. “Unhinged” was the only completed film on Solstice’s slate at the start of the pandemic, and the studio is still waiting to fully resume its production plans to reduce COVID-19 insurance and testing costs. Among the projects in the pipeline are director Robert Rodriguez’s action film “Hypnotic” starring Ben Affleck and the sci-fi film “Mind Fall” from screenwriter Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his script for “The Imitation Game” in 2015.

Kravitz and Charles, meanwhile, are currently collaborating on their next script and say there is a little bit of pressure after making “The Marksman.” But, for now, they are still enjoying the role they played in the most turbulent period ever for the film industry. “There’s a silver lining for me and Chris in that the film really made a splash, Kravitz said.

Back in January, they sat in on a screening of their film at a theater that had stayed open through the winter with full COVID-19 protocols enforced. They found out that for the small handful of others that had bought a ticket, it was the first time since before the pandemic that they had stepped into a movie theater.

“What we really wanted to do with our film was to tell this story about these two people from very different pasts — a former Marine and a boy from Mexico — coming together in the face of a terrible situation. We’ve always been drawn to stories like that and it is one we really wanted to release now at a time when we are all so divided,” Kravitz said.

“And everyone in that screening seemed so receptive of it. They were excited to be back in a theater, and they cheered and were engaged through the whole movie,” Charles added. “It was so gratifying to give that experience back to people after so long.”


Jeremy Fuster