AFM Day One: The Future of Film with Mark Gill

Day One of the virtual American Film Market is in the books and the market kicked off with A Conversation with Mark Gill, President & CEO, Solstice Studios.

Moderated by Anthony D’Alessandro, Managing Editor, Deadline, two explored the future state of the industry; predictions of how independent film, the marketplace, and audience consumption will change, especially due to a pandemic. The two discussed Solstice’s latest release Unhinged.

The 2020 action thriller film is directed by Derrick Borte, from a screenplay by Carl Ellsworth. The film stars Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson and Austin P. McKenzie.

D’Alessandro first asked Gill about the studio’s reasoning for releasing the new Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged into theaters. Gill replied, “Our idea was that we could be first and probably elevate a film of an otherwise modest budget of $33 million dollars against Tenet which is hundreds of millions of dollars or Mulan and that we might have an opportunity to elevate the movie. And that is actually what happened. “

He added, “But it wasn’t for the faint at heart because we had five release dates.  Every time we thought it was done another outbreak would happen somewhere in the US or theaters wouldn’t open or Tenet would move.  It was just the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve been doing this for a long long time.”

D’Alessandro then asked Gill about his perceptions of the theatrical landscape before releasing Unhinged and what he learned:

Gill replied, “It looked like Asia was well ahead of the US and Europe certainly too so we allowed the international folks to release first which is not all that common and it worked out great….What we were looking at were three things you have to get to line up.  There’s three sets of planets: There’s the theatre owners obviously.  There were other distributors, notably Warner Bros. for Tenet and at that time Disney with Mulan.  And then, of course, there’s the public health situation. Our theory was if we waited until Fall things could easily get worse – which is what we see happening.” 

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Gill also shared, “Our thought was that in the Summer we had a chance. And going first was important since no one else wanted to do it.  I’m glad we did. It worked out well for us but it was also an important statement to make about why theatres matter and that people would go.”

Gill added that countries including China, Japan and Korea give him hope.

“You’ve got more and more films pushing, FOX has just moved a couple of things.  It just does not look good. So I was glad to see Pfizer released good news about a possible vaccine.  That’s clearly going to be key.  The other thing that is incredibly heartening in the long-run is if you look at Japan and China and Korea, where the public health situation is under control, they’re breaking records.  So, people like going to the movies.  They just want to do it in a way that allows them to relax and enjoy and feel comfortable doing it and not enough of them are right now in the US.”

D’Alessandro went on to ask Gill what makes a film like Unhinged ripe right now for the current marketplace. Gill answered:

“I have three theories about that. The first is the movie has to be good enough.  The second is, for some reason men seem to be a little more willing to go to theatres than women. And third is that it’s a good way to blow off some steam.  We’re all living in a very very tense time.  Unemployment is high. Everything is uncertain. It’s tough for everybody. So if there’s a chance to go and just enjoy some craziness on the screen as opposed to the craziness in our real lives, that’s what the exit polls are telling us that people are liking about these kinds of movies.”

Gill then elaborated on why Solstice stuck to a full theatrical release for the feature. “Where possible, we want to be in theaters. That’s what we’re [Solstice Studios] all about so as others are running from it – you’ll see the majors making fewer movies for theaters which was coming any way but is now just accelerated – that will create more opportunity in the long run for mid-sized films to run in the way that they used to.  The impressive list of films that the AFM has been a part of for the last 40 years, those are precisely the kinds of films that are going to benefit from this once there is a vaccine.”

Finally, Gill was questioned on if he believes if there will be a shortage of films for the international market next year.

“What we’re starting to see from the production side is a number of movies gearing up for late winter or early spring starts. But that means they’re delivered a year from then so by the time we get to Cannes or certainly Toronto I think there is going to be a shortage of films.”

The conversation then switched to Good Joe Bell. The film is a 2020 American drama film directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, from a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. It stars Mark Wahlberg (Ted, Pain & Gain), Reid Miller, Connie Britton (American Horror Story, Friday Night Lights), Maxwell Jenkins (Lost in Space), and Gary Sinise.

The film had its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2020.

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“We bought Good Joe Bell for the world which means that we will sell it internationally after we’re done doing a little bit of work on the film.  I thought it was very very strong but not quite where it needed to be in terms of hitting critical mass. It will be done in the next 2 ½ – 3 weeks and then we need to probably take it to Berlin and we’re looking at releasing it for Academy Award consideration – which is by February 28th this year.  I’ve never seen that before.  It’s an emotionally compelling film.  We all unanimously agreed on that which never happens.”