With the release dates of major blockbuster film releases like Wonder Woman 84 and Tenet being delayed to later in the year due to COVID-19, a gaping hole has been left in the film industry, readily filled by smaller and lower-budget films. Indie horror The Wretched achieved the majority of its box-office success via its release in drive-in theatres; gory thriller Becky following close behind with an online release.
However, their unexpected commercial triumph was entirely dethroned by Unsubscribe, which, with a $0 budget and the help of a movie industry loophole, somehow managed to top the U.S. box office.
After noticing that box office figures were absurdly low, “$9,000, $15,000 for each movie”, as a result of cinemas being closed due to COVID-19, two filmmakers realised that, without the competition from the usual summer blockbuster releases, and with some planning, they could find a way to get their own movie to top the box office.
With minimal creative and production effort, actor-Youtuber Eric Tabach and filmmaker Christian Nilsson managed to put together a movie to rival previous box office hits within a week: Unsubscribe. The script was written by Nilsson in a day, the 29-minute horror itself filmed over Zoom, with its actors having volunteered to work on the project for free (the likes of Ozark actor Charlie Tahan, YouTuber Michelle Khare, and The Try Guys’ Zach Kornfeld). A friend was asked to compose the score, and Nilsson edited the movie himself.
While the movie’s plot itself is not particularly memorable, a sub-standard horror which tells the story of five YouTubers who find themselves haunted by an internet troll over a video call, Unsubscribe‘s status as a historical filmmaking achievement is indicated by the unorthodox (and deviously scheming) method through which it achieved box office success: exploiting a loophole in cinema ticket sales, known as four-walling. Explaining to the BBC, Tabach said:
Four-walling is when distributors rent out a movie theatre and buy all the seats. So they pay a flat fee to the theatre, and any money they make off seats goes straight into their pockets. The moment we realised that was an option of distribution, we went for it.
Nilsson and Tabach screened the movie at an independent theatre in Westhampton Beach, outside New York City. After paying a small fee to rent the theatre (which technically made the movie a loss), the two filmmakers dressed in tuxedos and headed to the theatre to witness the zenith of their humble creation. The only audience members, they watched their movie a total of five times. Tabach said:
We showed up, got some popcorn, sat down and played it. I’ve never seen an empty movie theatre, not least one playing a film I was in and made. It was a really cool experience. I watched every screening, over and over again.
Unsubscribe made a total of $25,488 at the box office in one day, officially landing the number one spot on IMDb for June 10, and can now be viewed on Vimeo – for a small price. It’s success just goes to show what can be accomplished within the absurdity of pandemic life, an extreme example of COVID-19 box office success for the future history books.
If you’re fascinated by the strange ways in which COVID-19 is changing our society, click here to see one Californian gym which installed workout pods for its members.