The follow-up to 1986’s “Top Gun” jetted past box office expectations, collecting $154 million over the long Memorial Day weekend in North America and $248 million worldwide. COVID times or not, those are impressive ticket sales, as well as a career-best start for Cruise. What’s particularly notable is that they were racked up by a film that doesn’t involve superheroes, intense CGI (yes, Cruise is really flying those jets), lightsabers or a rogue Tyrannosaurus.
Of course, nostalgia worked as a superpower for “Top Gun: Maverick.” But sentimentality alone did not translate to stratospheric ticket sales. Rapturous reviews (it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) and strong word of mouth (it landed a coveted “A+” CinemaScore) were integral in getting butts in seats. In other words, audience members — and not just those who loved the first film — really liked the latest “Top Gun.” Many people, including Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge, admitted to be shocked by how much they liked “Maverick.” In his review, he wrote, “Hardly anything in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ will surprise you, except how well it does nearly all the things audiences want and expect it to do.”
Megan Colligan, the president of Imax Entertainment, says “often in Hollywood, people get excited about the prospect of making money and think about the script later.” But “Top Gun: Maverick,” she says, was not one of those instances. “This is one of those where the team was super protective about making sure the movie was going to be great before [greenlighting it].”
There’s a message in there for Hollywood: Don’t go back to the vault and trudge up any old movie in the hopes of reaping massive box office riches. It may be tempting, in the wake of “Top Gun: Maverick,” to sift around to find once-beloved ’80s and ’90s action flicks or romantic comedies that could use a modern-day twist. But that age-old tactic only works when the studio and filmmaking team can make a compelling case for a sequel to exist on its own. Familiar faces may generate social media buzz, but that doesn’t always translate to ticket sales.
The way Cruise tells it, that’s at least partially why he waited nearly four decades to return to the cockpit.
“I wasn’t ready to make a sequel until we had a special story worthy of a sequel and technology evolved so that we could delve deeper into the experience of a fighter pilot,” Cruise told the media while promoting the sequel.
Similarly, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution Chris Aronson points to the “power of effective storytelling.”
“If you have a great story and execute it well, people will come to see it,” he says.
While “Top Gun: Maverick” benefitted from a nostalgia factor, it didn’t place all its chips on its status as a name-brand, but also bothered to develop a thoughtful evolution of the property. Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t always operate that way. It’s easier to pump out a familiar piece of IP and worry about the quality later, which has led to many legacy sequels floundering over recent years. Films like Kirsten Stewart’s “Charlie’s Angels” remake, “Men in Black: International” with Chris Hemsworth, Linda Hamilton’s return in “Terminator: Dark Fate” and Samuel L. Jackson’s revisit of “Shaft” failed to give moviegoers a reason to go to theaters.
Similarly, director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” remake resonated at the box office, not because Frank Herbert’s book has endured in popular culture (in fact, the 1984 version by David Lynch flopped in its theatrical run). Rather, Villeneuve’s version utilized stunning visuals to lure audiences back to desert planet Arrakis.
In the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Imax’s Colligan says, “It’s not just winks and nods to the original. The movie holds up.” The film putting up what is essentially a peak performance at the box office for its brand of legacy sequel.
A look at the breakdown of ticket buyers indicates that “Maverick” catered to fans of the original. As expected, around 55% of moviegoers were 35 years or older — the sweet spot that Paramount was hoping to excite with a return to “Top Gun.” Even so, getting those patrons to theaters was not an easy task at a time when adult audiences have been the most reluctant demographic to return to multiplexes.
But “Maverick” became more of an all-audience tentpole than expected through Paramount’s effective marketing campaign to reach younger moviegoers. Strong word-of-mouth moving forward should continue to draw people under the age of 35.
“Top Gun: Maverick,” which cost $170 million to produce, also benefitted from an exciting mega-watt promotional tour. Those multi-million dollar efforts included a stop at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in an effort to wow theater owners, along with a splashy premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which culminated with fighter jets flying over the Croisette. Those endeavors signaled to people that Paramount had the goods — and wanted you to know they knew it.
Sequels, reboots and remakes can be tricky, industry experts say, because studios and filmmakers have to strike the right balance between serving long-time fans while also engaging the uninitiated.
As David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, puts it: “People are less focused on where the story picks up and leaves off.” After all, audiences weren’t going to multiplexes out of desperate curiosity to learn about Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s post-Navy fighter pilot days. The sequel picks up as Maverick returns to Top Gun to train a new group of cocky aviators for a crucial, death-defying assignment.
“They want to see what the film has to offer today — what the characters, action and experience is going to be like now on the big screen,” Gross says. “When the source material is strong, more-of-the-same and something-different are both good. They’re both necessary and they work together.”
So, just because “Top Gun: Maverick” electrified the box office doesn’t mean that other beloved ’80s movies like “The Breakfast Club,” “The Goonies” or “E.T.” require a revisit. And bringing Cruise back for another “Risky Business,” an earlier Cruise classic, without a reason to find out what one-time high schooler and party boy Joel Goodsen has been up to in the decades after graduation, would be some risky business.