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Will ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ be a gateway for summer moviegoers?

photo illustration of a fighter jet with popcorn buckets as exhaust jets.
(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Photos via Gettyimages)

This is the May 3, 2022, edition of the Wide Shot newsletter about the business of entertainment. If this was forwarded to you, sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Before Jim Gianopulos was replaced as the chief executive of Paramount Pictures, one of the studio’s last big moves was to delay the theatrical release of “Top Gun: Maverick” from November of last year to this May amid a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, making it the summer tentpole it was originally meant to be.

The entertainment industry is becoming increasingly hopeful that the decision, hugely disappointing to beleaguered theater owners at the time, will pay off.

The long-awaited film’s debut was among the highlights of CinemaCon in Las Vegas, where it played in full Thursday morning before an enthusiastic crowd of cinema operators. The studio hype machine is about to hit Mach 2 with Wednesday’s premiere in San Diego, with some festivities expected to take place aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier before it hits theaters May 27.

The importance of the “Top Gun” sequel to the CinemaCon crowd is not to be underestimated.

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We know Marvel movies, cartoons and horror flicks can sell tickets as the pandemic era ebbs, but those movies benefit from appealing to young crowds who weren’t as worried about the virus as their elders. Exhibitors are hoping “Top Gun” will be a gateway drug for older audiences, who have been the most hesitant to return to theaters, or just got out of the habit of moviegoing after months of nothing to see.

“There are people who dropped out,” said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment, in an interview. “They went to the movies every week with the girls, or they went with their husband every Friday night. And then for two years, they started a different habit. They replaced it with something else. What it’s going to take is seeing that movie that compels them to go back.”

Maybe “Top Gun” will be that onramp for the over-45 crowd.

Optimism is rarely in short supply at CinemaCon, which is basically an annual pep rally to get exhibitors pumped-up about the coming lineup of blockbusters. The vibe last week was definitely much happier than the previous CinemaCon, which took place in August when the industry was in survival mode. This time, the celebrities showed up. The Rock took the Colosseum stage to promote Warner Bros.’ “Black Adam” and joke around with the CEOs of AMC and Cinemark. And what timing, coming the week after Netflix’s stock fell 35% in a single day?

At CinemaCon, the message is always that the naysayers declaring the death of movies are wrong. “What are you guys doing here?” Sony film chair Tom Rothman said to theater owners from the stage on opening night. “Don’t you know you’re dead?” Universal Pictures boss Donna Langley jokingly posited a drinking game for when the studio execs wax romantic about the “magic of movies.” If this writer had participated in such a game, he would not have survived.

But as in the heady smoke-filled atmosphere of a Vegas craps table, there are few certainties when it comes to the future of movie theaters. Some of the enthusiasm is warranted after the success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Batman.” But to paraphrase a classic “Top Gun” line, is the business’ ego writing checks its body can’t cash?

Eric Wold of B. Riley Securities has projected domestic box office revenue coming close to the $11-billion totals of the prepandemic times by next year. Others aren’t sure. Eric Handler of MKM Partners points out that while the pace of big-budget film releases is getting back to normal with movies like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” there’s still a dearth of midbudget movies.

“In fact, we track about 30% fewer movies, on average, between April and December than what was seen during the same time frames in 2017-2019,” Handler wrote in a note to clients last week.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of applause lines to lift theater owners’ spirits.

National Assn. of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian declared the practice of releasing movies simultaneously on streaming services and in theaters is “dead as a serious business model.”

That’s partly true? With some exceptions (“Firestarter” from Universal and Peacock, as Puck News’ Matt Belloni pointed out) studios have mostly stopped releasing their films via streaming on the same days as their theatrical releases. What they’re doing now is putting most of their movies in theaters exclusively, while setting others aside as straight-to-streaming titles. Peacock on Monday said three Universal movies are going straight to the service in 2023, including a biopic about LeBron James called “Shooting Stars.” Those are part of a previously announced deal for Universal to make a handful of Peacock originals.

Movies that go to theaters generally now stay there for around 45 days before becoming available for home viewing. This is where Hollywood has broadly coalesced after years of holding films back for 74 to 90 days before releasing them electronically or on DVD/Blu-ray. (This is called the “theatrical window.”)

But there’s no telling whether that compromise will remain the industry standard for years to come. Studios are still in learning mode, analyzing how well the new model works and allowing themselves to adjust if it doesn’t.

“If 45 days works, then it works,” AMC Theatres Chief Executive Adam Aron told The Times. “If it works so well that we don’t need 45 days, then the windows can shorten. If it almost works but it needs to be 52 or 59 days, well then we’ll have to go there. But what we’re all going to try is a 45-day window, and we’ll learn empirically whether it works or not.”

So far, so good. Studio bosses have decided that most movies are more valuable to streaming services when they play in theaters first. Debuting a film on the big screen makes it more of an event that people care about, partly thanks to the astronomical amount to marketing cash that goes into a theatrical release. That carries over to when those movies appear on streaming services or on digital rental sites. It makes them a bigger deal culturally than when a film just shows up in the Netflix or Amazon Prime queue.

Paramount CEO Brian Robbins, during a panel lunch, restated a point that he’d previously made on CNBC, that movies do better numbers on streaming when they get the theatrical halo. Paramount has seen this with the releases of movies including “Scream” and “Jackass Forever,” which received theatrical windows, as did “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.” As will, of course, “Top Gun: Marverick.”

Robbins’ comments would seem to throw cold water on the idea that he was hired to dismantle Paramount and turn it into a factory for streaming films. That’s good news for theaters.Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav made statements similar to Robbins in support of theatrical windows during a conference call to discuss the company’s earnings last week.

The theatrical business may end up just being a smaller one for the foreseeable future. There are probably people who are not coming back, no matter what movies are coming out. Attendance was already on a slow decline before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. To adapt, theaters are experimenting with content other than movies. Imax has launched a business to bring live events, such as concerts and stand-up comedy, onto its screens. Of the people who attended the Imax live stream of a Kanye West performance in December, 77% were nonmoviegoers, Colligan said.

But in a funny way, there have been some in the pro-theater camp who have suggested that maybe it’s the streamers who ought to consider adapting, given the struggles of the last couple weeks. Rather than gloat, theater representatives at CinemaCon signaled their openness to working more closely with Netflix.

“Exhibitors have played some Netflix movies, and our doors are open for bigger, broader play of Netflix movies if that is a path they want to go,” Fithian told reporters, while heaping praise on Netflix executives. “They’re movie fans like we’re movie fans.”

Well, sure. Netflix has released some movies in limited theaters, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead.” Netflix would have to commit to a robust theatrical window before most big cinema chains fully embraced the company.

Will Netflix accept the invitation? We’ll see. It’s easy for theater owners to welcome Netflix to take the plunge into theatrical releases. They want more product to play on their screens. It’s Netflix, though, that would have to spend the $150 million in marketing to make “Red Notice 2" a proper theatrical release. If it puts these movies in theaters like other films, it will be judged the same way its rivals are.

And if Netflix thinks the stock market is unforgiving, wait ‘til they see the box office.

Stuff we wrote

What does Disney’s Bob Chapek mean when he talks about the metaverse? High-level executives have been meeting to figure out the company’s game plan to sync physical worlds with digital and virtual ones.

‘I heard this shot’: ‘Rust’ armorer recounts the moment of Alec Baldwin’s fatal blast. Six months after Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office released hundreds of documents and dozens of videos from its investigation.

Hollywood’s COVID safety measures aren’t going away anytime soon, despite a clear shift in the country’s attitude toward the threat of the virus. Here’s why.

Speaking of production, on-location shoot days rose again last week, according to data from FilmLA. Here’s the chart:

On location film tracker

More headlines: New Disney PR chief Geoff Morrell out after three months amid Florida controversy. MGM film leaders leaving company after Amazon deal. Kevin Hart gets $100-million minority investment to build his comedy empire. Dear Sony: How not to mess up Bad Bunny’s “El Muerto.”

Netflix quality control

Talk to enough film studio executives, and you’ll hear a story like this. The company hires a fancy consultancy to review the business and give suggestions. Eventually the consultants present their findings in a conference room with a slideshow, and it goes something like this:

Consultants: OK, so in Column A over here, we have all your movies from the last 12 months that made money.
Execs: Right.
Consultants: And in Column B are the titles that lost money.
Execs: Sure.
Consultants: In conclusion, the studio should make more movies from Column A and fewer from Column B.
Execs: How much are we paying for this?

Netflix is frequently criticized for making a lot of shows and movies that don’t have much lasting cultural relevance, and this got kicked up to a new level after the company’s disastrous earnings report and subsequent stock decline. As Wendy Lee and I wrote, there’s growing recognition within the company that it needs to make better content.

By “better content,” analysts don’t mean more awards bait and critical darlings.

"[W]e mean content that captures the zeitgeist, whether that be ‘The Crown’ or ‘Stranger Things’ or ‘Squid Game’ or ‘Tiger King,’” wrote Rich Greenfield of LightShed partners in a blog post. “While the level of consumer appeal of Netflix content always mattered, the need for ‘better’ content has become far more important as the level of competition has surged in the past two years. Having a volume of ‘good enough’ content is no longer enough.”

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos told investors on a recorded video call that “we have to have an ‘Adam Project’ and a ‘Bridgerton’ every month and to make sure that that’s the expectation of the service constantly.” That is very difficult and expensive.

By the way, I joined Gustavo Arellano on The Times daily podcast to discuss Netflix and the streaming wars. Hope you can subscribe.

Number of the week

graphic of the number "75.4%"

How diverse are Hollywood’s talent agencies? Not nearly as diverse as they could be, if stats from one of the largest agency owners are any indication. Publicly traded entertainment firm Endeavor, which includes talent shop WME and combat sports league UFC, shared its numbers with The Times. From Wendy Lee’s story: “In the U.S., 64.8% of its roughly 4,500-person staff was white and so was 75.4% of its leadership, Endeavor said.” There were modest gains among people of color, but representation still lagged the broader U.S. population.

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Finally... building a bridge

The Judds, with 14 No. 1 country hits and 20 top 10s between 1983 and 2000 according to Billboard, were a big part of my early musical upbringing, which was dominated by the San Diego country radio station my parents played in the car.

The music world got the news on Saturday that Naomi Judd died at 76. Guessing I’m not the only one who had “Love Can Build a Bridge” playing on repeat. Here’s Brandi Carlile’s version, recorded in tribute.

Keeping with the country theme, Maren Morris’ new album “Humble Quest” has plenty of what I most appreciate about the genre: clever wordplay, catchy choruses and warm instrumentation. A worthy follow-up to 2019’s “Girl.”


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