“Top Gun: Maverick” was never going to be an easy sell.
Sure, the film starred Tom Cruise — arguably one of Hollywood’s most iconic movie stars — and it would be the sequel to “Top Gun,” one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. But the original “Top Gun” was in theaters when Ronald Reagan was president, leg warmers were still in style, and the New York Mets last won the World Series.
The challenge for Paramount — the studio that released the film — and its CEO Bob Bakish was how to roll out a sequel to the 1986 Cold War classic for a world that had seemingly left Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his “need for speed” behind.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the movie was scheduled to be released in the summer of 2020 when the world was in the midst of pandemic that was shutting down entire industries and throwing millions of people out of work and, oh yes, closing movie theaters around the world.
“It was pretty clear that that wasn’t a viable idea,” Bakish told CNN Business about releasing the film. “The world was pretty shut down, you weren’t going to put an expensive movie that you had real hopes for… in theaters and have nobody come.”
What was Paramount to do? “Maverick” was ready to take off — but had nowhere to land. The film, with its hefty $170 million price tag, could go straight to streaming — like many movies did during the pandemic — and as a marquee title would have likely pushed subscribers to the studio’s growing streaming service, Paramount+. However, the company chose to save it for the big screen.
“We really felt, and Tom [Cruise] certainly agreed with the fact that we had a great big screen movie and we just had to hold it,” Bakish said. “It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Still, it was a big risk. Would audiences leave their homes during a pandemic to watch a sequel to a movie more than three decades old? Bakish and Paramount wouldn’t find out until roughly two years after the film’s original release date, after its fourth and final release date of May 27, 2022.
“Top Gun: Maverick” has since become the fifth-highest-grossing film in US history.
“The future is coming… and you’re not in it”
“It’s a very, very bad time to own a movie theater.”
That’s how Brent Lang, executive editor of Variety, described the climate of the movie theater industry during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The global health crisis shuttered theaters, delaying films for months, if not years. That left some in Hollywood to wonder if the business, which notched more than $40 billion in global ticket sales in 2019, would ever recover.
Streaming — which had already upended the theatrical model — was now booming. Netflix was setting subscriber records, Disney+ surpassed 100 million subscribers in a mere 16 months and other new services were popping up seemingly every day.
Amid that landscape, Warner Bros. decided to release its entire 2021 film slate directly to theaters and simultaneously to the company’s streaming service, HBO Max — a move that shocked Hollywood. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Yet, cineplexes kept trying. In 2021, hits like Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” Disney’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and Universal’s “F9: The Fast Saga” all brought in sizable ticket sales that helped theaters stay open.
But it wasn’t until Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” debuted on the big screen in December that theaters saw a glimmer of hope. “No Way Home” made nearly $2 billion worldwide, but it didn’t really give the industry the confidence it needed — after all, Marvel movies are supposed to do well at the box office no matter what.
So if a superhero couldn’t save the day, what kind of film would inject new life into theaters? Enter a cocky 60-year-old flyboy and his rag-tag team of young fighter pilots.
“Maverick” flew into theaters with lots of buzz and strong reviews, and that helped the movie blow past box office projections for its opening weekend. It brought in a Memorial Day weekend record of $160 million at the North American box office. That alone would have been a victory for Paramount, but the film was just taking off.
Audiences came back week after week, making “Maverick” the only film ever to take the top spot on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. For 75 straight days the film made at least $1 million a day, and now accounts for roughly 12% of the overall domestic box office so far this year, according to Comscore (SCOR). Simply put, “Maverick” refused to land.
“It was an event-level motion picture made for theaters,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. “It also brought back a significant portion of older audiences who held out during the early months of cinematic recovery in 2021 and early 2022.”
Even Bakish was surprised by audiences’ reaction to the film, noting that Paramount “always knew it was a great movie” but it “probably underappreciated how great it was because no one could predict it would do this well.”
But there’s also a symbolic aspect to the film’s success. “Maverick” is an old-school box office hit made for the biggest screen possible that emerged just as the industry’s future was very much in doubt. “Maverick” showed that audiences still want to go to the movies.
“The commercial reception of Tom Cruise’s legacy sequel was the summer movie miracle theaters needed,” Scott Mendelson, a box office reporter, wrote for Forbes.
Climbing back up the mountain
“Maverick” was also the type of success that Paramount — a company in transition — sorely needed.
In recent years, the studio behind some of cinema’s greatest films — think “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — found itself lagging behind competitors in box office market share.
Paramount recombined with CBS in 2019 after splitting off from the company in 2006 and rebranded itself as Paramount Global, revamping its top streaming service into Paramount+ during a rapid evolution of the entertainment industry.
For Bakish, Paramount’s current success comes from focusing on “multiplatform, global execution,” or as he himself puts it, “it’s about theatrical, it’s about television and it’s about streaming.” In other words, Paramount has more than just a streaming-centric view of the media business.
The strategy has been working. Paramount (PGRE) has had six No. 1 debuts so far this year — more than any other studio — with hit films across multiple genres, including romantic comedy (“The Lost City”), family (“Sonic the Hedgehog 2”) and horror (“Smile”).
Putting films in theaters has not hindered Paramount’s streaming efforts, which include Paramount+ and Showtime and have nearly 67 million subscribers worldwide, the company said last week. While that’s lower than competitors like Netflix (NFLX) and Disney+, Paramount+ is the fastest-growing service in the US so far this year, according to Bloomberg.
And those numbers will likely see a boost in the coming months with international expansion in the next year and “Maverick” finally hitting Paramount+ by the end of 2022.
“This is an extraordinary collection of assets,” Bakish said of Paramount’s portfolio of brands. “And at the moment — and yes, I’m biased — we’re executing pretty well.”
But will that lead to another “Top Gun”?
“You’ve got to have the stars align again. You’ve got to have a story that people love and you’ve got to put the team together,” Bakish said. “We’ll see.”