Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” began production in May 2019. By March 2020 Covid shut down theaters and much of post-production, but Warner Bros. still managed to open the film in theaters (where possible) in August of that year. It grossed $58 million domestic in its theatrical run.
“Top Gun: Maverick” began production in May 2018. It opened Memorial Day weekend 2022 to exceed its domestic gross expectations by more than 50 percent with a four-day total of over $160 million.
Most credit goes to the film, the still-potent appeal of Tom Cruise, Paramount, and co-financier Skydance, but attention must be paid to the often-difficult decisions that went into committing to a massively expensive global theatrical release four years after the film’s production began.
“Tenet” was the first of several films that tried to play the role of “savior” — the one that could resurrect theaters. It does deserve credit: Worldwide, it grossed $367 million and encouraged other studios to go theatrical. “No Time to Die,” which began production March 2019, was another contender for the title. It gave a credible performance ($161 million domestic, $663 million worldwide), but still felt as if it lagged in the face of a still-reluctant audience.
At this writing, Covid remains alive and well; there may even be significantly more cases today than there were a year ago. However, public perception has finally shifted: The audience for “Top Gun: Maverick” this weekend was 55 percent over the age of 35.
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Top Gun: Maverick” now serves as the standard bearer for blockbusters that fall outside the extended universes of Marvel, D.C., or “Fast and Furious.” Superheroes still rule; “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and “The Batman” all had bigger opening weekends. However, “Maverick” could not have thrived if that same superhero audience didn’t show up. History suggests that with an earlier release date, that might not have been the case.
“No Time to Die” made $55 million in its first three days; “Maverick” grossed more than twice as much. Also aiding “Maverick” was its placement after the market was exposed to a half-dozen Marvel titles. It’s a top alternative, and the first; others, led by Universal’s “Jurassic World: Dominion,” will try to replicate its success.
Covid delays also favored “Maverick” with its CinemaCon screening in April; the annual exhibitors’ convention normally takes place in March. Social media captured the tumultuous response, which included the press covering the event. Based on social media sentiment, they loved the film even more than the critics (78 Metacritic score).
Covid delays also benefited “Maverick” at Cannes. Any year, the festival is the world’s premier global platform for film marketing; when Cannes is celebrating its first normal event since the pandemic, the festival has never been more receptive to pulling out the stops. Of course, Paramount has its own marketing machine in Tom Cruise and the American blockbuster got more press attention than any other film.
This paralleled another benefit of the delayed release. No star is more adept at in person promotion than Tom Cruise. But for more than two years, the ability to maximize stars has been hindered by travel restrictions. With them finally nearly all eliminated, led by his Cannes appearance (one of several countries) made the showing stand out even more than it might have otherwise because the lack of anything close recently.
Finally, “Maverick” served as an escape vessel — a primary reason why films are essential, exhibitors say. The current short list of stressors include domestic terror attacks at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas along with the war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and Covid.
Who wouldn’t want a high-octane action story infused with patriotic values that celebrates heroic individualism — and on Memorial Day weekend, no less? Through a unique and not-to-be-repeated combination of strategy and circumstance, Paramount could not have done better.