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Tom Cruise, #GentleMinions Mania and the Endurance of ‘Elvis’: How Summer Movie Season Rebounded From COVID

Variety logo Variety 8/10/2022 Brent Lang
© Paramount/Everett Collection | Warner Bros./Everett Collection | Sony Pictures Entertainment/Everett...

Movie theaters owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Cruise, who wouldn’t dare to let Paramount Pictures release his decades-in-the-making sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” on a streaming service in the height of the pandemic.

You don’t have to closely follow the box office to know the action-packed blockbuster became a big-screen sensation, generating $663 million in the U.S. and $1.3 billion globally to date and exciting audiences in a way that would’ve even been rare before COVID. By the time the “Top Gun” follow-up leaves theaters, it’ll be within striking distance of “Black Panther” ($700 million domestically), which stands as the fifth-highest grossing movie in North American history.

But Cruise, who returned to the cockpit 36 years after the first “Top Gun” electrified the box office in 1986, wasn’t the only hero to galvanize moviegoers. Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” Universal’s “Jurassic World Dominion” and Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” were among the summer’s triumphant tentpoles, while mainstream movies like director Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant musical biopic “Elvis,” the Blumhouse thriller “The Black Phone” with Ethan Hawke and Sony’s literary adaptation “Where the Crawdads Sing” quietly kept theaters busy in between blockbusters.

Popcorn season has generated $3.027 billion so far, according to Comscore, which puts ticket sales 17.5% behind 2019 (the last pre-pandemic period) and up 134.6% from the same frame in 2021. There’s plenty of ground to make up, to be sure, but this year’s unexpectedly strong summer season is important in the theater industry’s quest to recover from COVID-19 wreckage.

There may be a few sweltering weeks left on the calendar, but summer is winding down a lot sooner than cinema operators may have wanted. With the dog days upon the box office, it’s time for Variety to unpack blockbuster season.

Tom Terrific

With “Top Gun: Maverick,” the 60-year old Tom Cruise reminded Hollywood that he remains a big draw even as he enters his seventh decade. The film, which recently surpassed “Titanic” on the list of highest-grossing domestic releases, was able to draw audiences from across the spectrum, attracting people who first swooned for Cruise in his aviators with the 1986 original, while also appealing to audiences born long after the Reagan era. Importantly, it helped lure older crowds, who had been skittish about COVID, back to multiplexes. For Paramount, the studio that stuck by the film with several pandemic delays, as opposed to sending it straight to streaming (which Cruise would never stand for), it reaffirmed the importance of a big, broad theatrical rollout. It also must be making the studio feel better about the next two “Mission: Impossible” movies, which have seen their budgets balloon due to pandemic shutdowns and delays, in addition to Cruise’s well-documented perfectionism. After all, there’s no better chaser for “Top Gun” then another couple doses of Ethan Hunt.

The Little Engines That Could 

“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” may have dominated headlines, but there are several smaller films that showed impressive endurance at the box office and helped keep cash registers ringing between blockbusters. “Elvis,” a biopic about a rock star who died in 1977, has made an astonishing $250 million globally, which easily tops the $195 million that “Rocketman,” the R-rated Elton John drama, earned in 2019. Then there’s “Where the Crawdads Sing,” a slice of Southern melodrama that shattered expectations with a $17 million opening and quietly continued humming. Ticket sales in North America currently stand at $64.6 million. And “The Black Phone,” a low-budget chiller, has been the rare horror film to show some endurance, opening to $23.6 million and then generating $85.9 million domestically and $148 million globally. Made for just $18 million, “The Black Phone” stands to be one of the season’s most profitable movies. As it turns out, audiences don’t only want to watch comic book villains and rogue dinosaurs ravage the planet.

Pipeline Problems 

Hollywood has a volume issue. There have been 36.5% fewer releases this year than in 2019, the last pre-COVID period. Part of the problem is that VFX houses have been overwhelmed with demand and the pandemic has scrambled shooting dates, which has caused movies such as “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” and “Creed III” to shift their openings. That’s left some gaping holes on the release calendar that desperately need to be filled. The one gripe from theater owners is that they don’t have enough films to fill their screens. Netflix, they’re ready to talk.

Marvel Remains Mighty, But…

Even a mixed critical reception and some Twitter sniping couldn’t keep the latest God of Thunder adventure from flying high. “Thor: Love and Thunder” outgrossed its more beloved predecessor “Thor: Ragnarok” on the domestic front. But here’s the thing. Tensions with China and Russia’s war with Ukraine are making it very difficult for global blockbusters to generate the same kind of pre-pandemic grosses. As it stands, “Thor: Love and Thunder’s” $699.4 million global gross lags behind “Thor: Ragnarok’s” $853 million worldwide haul. That’s largely because China accounted for $112 million of “Thor: Ragnarok’s” revenue and Russia added an additional $23 million to the bounty. Plus, there’s a lot of griping that Marvel’s Phase 4 films have fallen short of the creative bar set by previous chapters in the wider “Avengers” saga, which puts the pressure on Kevin Feige and company to up their game when MCU entries such as “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” roll into theaters at the end of 2022 and early 2023, respectively.

‘Minions’ Defies the Odds

There’s something about those cuddly yellow rascals. At a time when family fare has languished at the box office, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” made a formidable $334 million domestic and a massive $759 million globally. It didn’t hurt that “Minions” inspired an organic viral TikTok trend, encouraging teenagers — a.k.a. #GentleMinions — to attend their local multiplex dressed in suits.

Plus, the latest “Minions” recently scored a release date in China, which could help it pad those grosses. The same can’t be said for other films aimed at families. Over the summer, “D.C. League of Super Pets,” “Paws of Fury” and, most shockingly, “Lightyear” failed to connect with consumers. The “Lightyear” misfire was particularly striking considering the movie was a spin-off of the popular “Toy Story” franchise and came from the once invincible Pixar empire. If family movies, particularly animated ones, can’t rebound, that’s bad news for exhibitors, which rely on these crowds to keep the corn popping.

Momentum Is Everything 

August is a wasteland, at least in terms of movies guaranteed to draw a crowd. After “Bullet Train” debuted last weekend to a so-so $30.1 million, movie theaters have to brace for a long dry spell. There’s a couple of smaller studio movies such as “Beast” with Idris Elba, coming on Aug. 19, and “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” a fantasy romance with Tilda Swinton and Elba (again). Aside from that, it’s bleak. Most studio executives don’t think there will be another monster hit until “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens on Nov. 11. For movie theaters which barely survived the pandemic, the next two to three months could be one of the more trying periods since shutdowns first dimmed their marquees. It also means that, after a sizzling summer with hit building on hit, all of that momentum and good will is about to be squandered.

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Video: Tom Cruise planning new action movie, musical, and Tropic Thunder spin-off (Dailymotion)

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