Exclusive interview – Solstice Studios CEO Mark Gill on UNHINGED, starting during Covid-19 and more

Exclusive interview – Solstice Studios CEO Mark Gill on UNHINGED, starting during Covid-19 and more

These days, movie studios can be very hit and miss, quite literally. We’ve seen company names pop up and sometimes become well known with moviegoers, but a lot of times the new brands have a hard time competing with established big boy production houses.  Enter Solstice Studios, a new company headed up by President and CEO Mark Gill, who is no stranger to producing major motion pictures like the OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN trilogy, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD, and LAW ABIDING CITIZEN… just to name a few.  He served as the former President of Miramax Films, Warner Independent Pictures, and Millennium Films.  In short, the guy knows this business.  But with Covid-19 shutting down movie theaters and stifling film production, it’s definitely a tricky time to start up a new production company… or is it?  Solstice is getting the jump on a lot of studios this weekend with the Russell Crowe thriller UNHINGED, now officially the first new movie to open in theaters since Coronavirus hit.  We had a chance to chat with Mark about how things are going, how UNHINGED came together, and what lies ahead for Solstice Studios.  It’s not often you get to talk to one of the heads of a major movie studio like this, so I’m honored he was able to take some time out to speak with us.  Check out UNHINGED this weekend, and read on to see what else you can expect from Solstice Studios down the line.

 Walters: Thanks for taking time to do this today, I appreciate it. I’m excited to talk to you, not only because of your new studio but also because I’m getting to see your film today, and this is a momentous occasion because this is our first big movie back in movie theaters. That’s exciting in and of itself. I’m sure you guys have been very busy getting this thing going, getting it ready… I guess let’s start with… I know it’s kind of an obvious question, but when you’re trying to start a new movie studio in the middle of a pandemic, with everything we’re going through and everything that’s happening with movie theaters, tell us about the back door of that and what the logistics are like, and trying to get that done.

Mark Gill: Everything is about twice as hard. First of all you’ve got all of our people working remotely, we’re in Los Angeles so we’re not allowed to go into the office.  Second of all, of course, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty about which states will be open and then within those states which movie theaters will be open, and when they’ll be open.  And part of that, of course, hinged on not just one movie like ours, but a whole schedule of movies because theaters need a whole schedule of movies.  So it has been quite a crazy Spring and Summer, but I actually think all of the extra effort is starting to look like it’s going to be worth it.  I feel like we have a pretty good chance.

Walters: Yeah, I think so, it seems like the reaction to the film has been great. I know that when we posted the trailer back in May, I think it took a lot of people by surprise, including myself. I actually was not very familiar not only the film but also your studio as well. Now I know you guys started work on Solstice in 2018, and you’ve been working on kind of building that up over time. You’ve been hiring a lot of really great people for this company. Talk about what it’s like to build a new movie studio in today’s market, not so much in reference to the pandemic, but just in terms of how things have changed. You’ve certainly seen your share over the years of working in that field, but what’s it like to put together a studio in today’s moviegoing market?

Mark Gill: Well I met 612 investors to find TWO, and it took me 22 months so it was really hard, but I still believe the premise is correct which is there is a big crowd of movie companies up in the sort of super blockbuster STAR WARS / MARVEL area, and there is a pretty big crowd of very find companies working on art films for limited release, and there is nobody in between… and that’s where we sit, so we make movies that are between $20 million and $80 million dollars with a story you’ve heard of. They’re not really art films, they’re meant for wide release, but they’re also not STAR WARS. And this last fall the audiences proved they really like them still, whether it was HUSTLERS or my film was ANGEL HAS FALLEN, or DOWNTON ABBEY or KNIVES OUT. There were a tremendous number of films of this size that did well. And what this boils down to is audiences don’t just want one thing, they want some variety. Nobody else is doing part of that, and there’s a real opportunity.

Walters: Absolutely, I think today with streaming being in a lot of people’s conscience, especially during the pandemic, there’s a big desire for people now since they’ve been sitting at home for the last five months, they want to get back out there, they want to get into movie theaters and they want to see something, like you say, that is not necessarily a giant blockbuster but not necessarily an indie film, they just want to see popcorn entertainment and I think you guys can absolutely deliver that. Let’s talk a little bit about UNHINGED and how this project came together. Was this something that you had been working on for a while? When did Russell get involved? I feel like this is a film that in a lot of ways is really timely because… we’ve all seen that guy on the freeway, and hopefully we don’t interact with that guy, but we’ve certainly seen it. Talk about how that film came together.

Mark Gill: Sure, so we received the script in March of last year from a producer who we liked, and she said you have to read it this weekend, there’s lots of companies looking at it, it will be in auction… and it was, and we won the auction, so Monday in early March we had bought the script, by April we had a director, by May we had Russell Crowe, and by July we were shooting. So what is that, four or five months? Typically the average time it takes for a movie studio to do that is thirteen years, so this was incredibly fast. And what we found was people just were so responsive to idea of the script and the idea of road rage, and one of the reasons we learned later is there’s a poll that says 82% of Americans have experienced road rage. So okay, we relate to it. We finished filming in New orleans in August, and were in post-production when we got shut down by the Covid decrees for the state of California, we finally managed to get a handful of people back into the office and they had to finish off the movie. And here we are coming out in August of the next year.

Walters: I gotta say that is incredibly impressive to have that kind of timeline, like you said, this sort of thing does not happen that fast. So that’s very impressive that you guys were able to get it done as quickly as you did. When the pandemic started, was there ever a moment where you guys said to yourselves maybe we need to push this back or maybe we need to delay this? What was the moment where you decided, no, we’re going to push forward, we’re going to get this thing out in theaters, and we’re going to be the first big movie to come out in theaters… when did that happen?

Mark Gill: About March 20th, it became clear A QUIET PLACE 2 could not open, and they moved their date from late-March to September 4th, which was our date, and all of a sudden… there was no chance we were going up against that super tanker, and we had to move. We started to look later – fall, winter, Spring of 2021, and the schedule was really full not only with existing movies but also the addition of postponed movies, and obviously there was some question about whether theater would be at 100 capacity of less. So it just looked like there was going to be no room at the inn for us, and that’s what caused us to start thinking about going first instead. And ultimately we decided to do it based on theaters saying their safety protocols were as extensive and thorough as they are, which was really helpful. The other thing was we did a National poll to ask people in early May, would you definitely go to movies in July if theaters were open? I thought 30 or 40% of the people would say yes, but 80% said yes, and that gave us the courage to go ahead and be first.

Walters: Yeah, absolutely, I think people are definitely… they’re ready, and it’s going to be great to see how this performs, being that it is the first film back in theaters. I did want to talk to you briefly before we wrap this up about the future of Solstice Studios, and what we can expect to see from you guys. I know you’re working on a new thriller with Robert Rodriguez, which I believe Ben Affleck is involved with. I just want to talk about what’s next for you guys, because I’m excited to see what you guys are going to deliver for us.

Mark Gill: Excellent, yes, HYPNOTIC is a film starring Ben Affleck directed by Robert Rodriguez, we were in pre-production, we were going to start April 27th but got shut down in March. We’re now looking to get it started again this fall, but Covid took six to nine months of a bite out of the production schedule. When you’re talking about putting 100 to 200 people anywhere near each other, you have to do a lot more, right now anyway, than you would normally. You want to be careful about that and ensure health and safely. But it is possible, and we are getting closer to pulling it off, so hopefully we’ll get back into doing what we’re supposed to do which is trying to make three to five movies a year.

Walters: And you’ve also got a film called BOMB SQUAD that you’re working on as well.

Mark Gill: (laughs) BOMB SQUAD is a very clever idea, and original idea of two young writers who decided to tell a story a little bit like TRAINING DAY in a way. There’s a younger guy and an older guy. And you know, it’s gotta be the most dangerous job in the world. The average tenure of that job before people just say I’m not doing that anymore is five years, so that tells you how much pressure it us. And they’re up against somebody who is doing an escalating series of attacks, they’re looking more and more dangerous. The clock is ticking and things are getting worse the longer they wait… it’s a very clever idea.

Walters: Well Mark, I gotta tell ya, I’m very anxious to see what’s next with you guys, I think it’s going to be very, very exciting. And I want to wish you all the luck on UNHINGED, I think a lot of people are going to be talking about this movie. We will anxiously be watching to see what’s next for Solstice, so thank you for taking time to talk to us today.

Mark Gill: Thank you so much, appreciate the time.

You can find out more about Solstice Studios at their official website here.

UNHINGED opens August 21, 2020

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.