Top Gun: Maverick” finds Tom Cruise called back into service by a rattled Navy

LOS ANGELES — “Top Gun: Maverick” finds Tom Cruise called back into service by a rattled Navy. A new threat has emerged, one that a younger generation of pilots can’t crack on its own.

This job requires a battle-tested veteran.

It was a similar scenario in real life over the weekend, as Hollywood — still struggling to jolt moviegoing out of its pandemic slumber — looked to “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to a 36-year-old film, and Cruise, perhaps the last old-fashioned movie star, for a solution. The result was a defining moment for the film industry’s box office recovery, analysts said, with estimated ticket sales of $151 million in North America from Thursday night through Monday. That means more than 11 million people will have pried themselves away from in-home streaming services, according to EntTelligence, a research firm.

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Add in overseas ticket sales, and the global opening total for “Top Gun: Maverick” over that period will approach $300 million.

“People are ecstatic,” said John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “We’ve spent two years answering God-awful existential questions about the future of moviegoing.” Fithian noted that older audiences, largely absent from theaters over the last two years because of coronavirus concerns, returned en masse over the weekend, “ending the debate about a full recovery.”

About 55 percent of ticket buyers were over the age of 35, according to Paramount Pictures, which released “Top Gun: Maverick.” Paramount and Skydance Media produced and financed the movie, which cost roughly $170 million to make. A megawatt global marketing campaign cost another $125 million or more.

Turnout for “Top Gun: Maverick” was unusually strong in some areas of the United States that tend to be overlooked by Hollywood, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Utah, Oregon and northern Florida. Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s president of worldwide marketing and distribution, noted that 20 percent of ticket buyers were aged 18 to 24, a demographic that had been in question before release.

“I think a lot of people want to take a break from the world for two hours, especially for something that leaves them feeling upbeat like this movie does,” Weinstock said.

Adjusting for inflation, the original “Top Gun” cost about $40 million to make and collected $942 million at the global box office in summer 1986, according to the IMDb Pro database. “Top Gun” was released on 1,028 screens in the United States and Canada, which, at the time, amounted to an ultrawide rollout. To compare, “Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, arrived on 4,735 screens in North America, setting a theatrical booking record, according to Comscore.

Euphoric reviews and strong word of mouth helped boost ticket sales, which easily surpassed prerelease analyst expectations. “Top Gun: Maverick” received a rare A-plus grade from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls. Paramount also backed the release with a savvy marketing campaign that included a monumental premiere on an aircraft carrier; a video stunt with James Corden that went viral; promotion by hundreds of TikTok and Instagram influencers; a website allowing fans to generate customized call signs with augmented reality photos; and original songs by Lady Gaga. As ever, Cruise trotted the globe on a tightly controlled publicity tour.

In the United States, concerns about the coronavirus seem to have faded. About 85 percent of prepandemic ticket buyers (those attending at least four movies a year) currently feel safe going to theaters, according to polling by National Research Group, a film industry consultancy. In January, about 65 percent felt safe. N.R.G. data shows that consumers in general view movie theaters as safer than gyms, bars and restaurants.

“This is the real turnaround,” said Mooky Greidinger, the chief executive of Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, the No. 2 multiplex chain in the United States. “We are very, very optimistic for the rest of the year.” He noted that a large percentage of “Top Gun: Maverick” ticket buyers opted for premium-priced screenings in large-format theaters such as IMAX. “Give us every weekend a movie like ‘Top Gun!’” he said.

For the first time since early 2020, Greidinger and other theater owners are going to get their wish. The box office has struggled to bounce back in part because of sporadic output by studios. “We would have a really big one and then nothing to follow that up,” Fithian said. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” for instance, was a juggernaut in late December and January, taking in $1.9 billion worldwide. But it also had theaters largely to itself, with February almost devoid of big-budget offerings.

In the weeks ahead, Hollywood will serve up a murderers’ row of sequels and prequels, including “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “Lightyear,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Other high-profile summer offerings include “Where the Crawdads Sing,” “Elvis” and Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” Theater owners also have high hopes for “The Black Phone,” a Blumhouse thriller, and “Bullet Train,” starring Brad Pitt.

“There is finally a range of options for moviegoers of all types,” Fithian said. “Moviegoing begets moviegoing,” he added, with trailers shown in theaters one weekend fueling attendance the next.

“Top Gun: Maverick” gave Cruise, 59, the biggest opening of his decades-long career, even when adjusting for inflation, surpassing “War of the Worlds” in 2005, according to Comscore data. The results also amounted to triumphs for Jerry Bruckheimer, 78, who produced the original “Top Gun” and the sequel; David Ellison, 39, the owner of Skydance who has become a Hollywood force; and James N. Gianopulos, 70, who was pushed out as Paramount’s chief in 2021 after resisting pressure from his corporate overlords to reroute films like “Top Gun: Maverick” to the Paramount+ streaming service.

Overall, the joyful mood in the old-line movie industry on Sunday could be summed up by an exchange in “Top Gun: Maverick” between Cruise’s weathered flying ace and a naysaying superior.

“The end is inevitable, Maverick — your kind is headed for extinction,” the superior says.

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