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Hollywood poised for big screen gamble as theaters reopen

After more than 3 months of coronavirus-mandated limbo, Hollywood is headed back to the big screen – and hoping that Russell Crowe's road rage thriller Unhinged will jump-start the recovery.

The action film, due out July 10, is set to be the first wide release since US theaters shut their doors in mid-March. Christopher Nolan's much-hyped Tenet will follow soon after.

But will the gamble pay off for those quick-moving studios?

While top theater chains across the country plan to fire up their projectors in the first half of July, screens in badly-hit New York and Los Angeles don't yet have permission to reopen.

And even with social distancing and sanitation measures boosted, moviegoers' enthusiasm for piling into dark, enclosed auditoriums amid a possible "second wave" of virus cases may fluctuate.

AMC, the world's largest theater chain, caused a stir by initially declining to mandate face masks, saying it did not want to be "drawn into a political controversy." 

It did a U-turn on that policy Friday following an outcry.

Everyone from indie distributors to blockbuster studios will be carefully watching to see how the experiment with new theatrical releases proceeds.

"Hollywood is not a place where competitors are known for wishing each other well very often," said Unhinged producer Mark Gill. 

"And in this particular circumstance, everybody is hoping we do well." 

His movie bucked the industry trend, shifting its release date forward from September, as larger studios gobbled up all the prime opening slots deeper into 2020.

Solstice Studios decided the lack of competing new titles, and dearth of other distractions such as major sporting events, outweighed the danger of flopping early – which in any case is reduced for a mid-budget, $33 million movie.

"The more we looked at it, it's risky of course, but it still looked like it was worth doing," Gill told AFP.


'Worth the risk' 

"Somebody had to go first – it's definitely worth the risk," said Jeff Bock, a senior analyst for industry tracker Exhibitor Relations. "But I think the odds are stacked against it."

While the decision to open Unhinged early has generated buzz – its trailer drew 210 million views in a week – its studio's pockets are less deep than those of its rivals when it comes to marketing, he noted.

But Unhinged is really a "set-up for the other studios," he added, noting that the true litmus test will be the first major studio titles, including Warner Bros' $200 million-plus Tenet, out July 31.

Nolan – its influential director who is best known for Inception, Dunkirk and the Batman Dark Knight trilogy – has pushed for his ambitious and secretive sci-fi thriller to stand firm with its early theater release.

Still, it was recently shuffled back by two weeks, giving New York and Los Angeles screens breathing space to reopen.

Disney's Mulan is also due in July – shortly after Disney World and Disneyland reopen – though some analysts predict it may yet be switched to a later slot if families are seen as still nervous about going to theaters.

"Word-of-mouth will be based now on not specifically which films are actually good, but which theaters are following all the guidelines," said Bock.

'You're dead' 

The dangers of jumping the gun were highlighted in China, where theaters in several provinces optimistically reopened in late March, before closing again days later.

The capital Beijing is now experiencing a new COVID-19 outbreak, prompting the authorities to lock down parts of the city.

If fresh outbreaks are traced back to screens in the US, "theaters are going to shut down very quickly, and for a very long time thereafter," predicted Bock.

Those concerns were evident in Los Angeles on Friday, when bars and tattoo parlors were cleared to reopen – but theaters notably were not.

Still, Gill is focused on the tens of thousands of empty movie theaters itching to reopen across the country, but with nothing new to show – and no certainty on whether audiences are willing to return.

"You can have theaters open and a good movie and be all by yourself and do everything right," he said. "But if nobody's coming, you're dead." –