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Tom Cruise’s new ‘Top Gun’ could take movies back to the late ’70s and the golden age of blockbusters

May 28, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC

Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 blockbuster starring Tom Cruise, is expected to rake in over $100 million in the U.S. this weekend, which could make it the highest-grossing domestic opening in the history of Memorial Day weekend.

Film industry analysts weren’t expecting it, but they’re all for it. Top Gun might hit $1 billion gross at the box office, the first time a Tom Cruise movie has done so (as well as Cruise’s first $100 million weekend.) Its likely success suggests that 1970s and ’80s-style blockbusters may not be as unprofitable as once thought.

“This is really amazing,” Paul Dergarabedian, a film industry analyst with media analytics company Comscore, told Fortune. “If you were to go back in time two years ago into 2020 right now, the box office was essentially nonexistent.”

The belief that the pandemic killed the movie theater industry appears to have been dashed, as Dergarabedian calls Top Gun’s expected success “symbolic” of how important the movie theater experience is. 

Top Gun comes on the heels of big box-office returns from this year’s much-awaited superhero movies, including The Batman and Spider-Man: No Way Home; the latter became the sixth-highest grossing movie in history earlier this year. 

But there’s something that sets Top Gun apart from those other movies: no superheroes. In the pandemic era, only cape movies have opened on this scale.  

“This is great news for those who felt like the only types of movies that were destined for movie theaters would be superhero movies,” Dergarabedian said. “Superhero movies are great, but we don’t just want the movie theater to be about superheroes.”

The stock market has also undermined the narrative that streaming services were set to replace theaters after the pandemic, especially in light of the serious financial troubles Netflix ran into this year. The industry’s biggest and oldest streaming platform shocked the Street by losing 200,000 subscribers in the last quarter and projecting millions more in subscriber cancellations to come. It’s now worth about 70% less than it used to be, and streaming stocks are widely down as Hollywood film producers celebrate their new lease on life.

A new era of stagflation, a new golden age for blockbusters?

Top Gun’s success harkens back to the heyday of the film industry’s blockbusters: the 1970s and 1980s, when films like Jaws and the Star Wars trilogy completely reinvented what movies could aim for, how they were marketed, and what the moviegoing experience could be.

These types of movies predicated a major shift in the industry. Until the big-bang moment of box-office smash Jaws in 1975, films were released on a regional basis, and prestige-driven, intellectual movies ruled film culture, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic The Godfather. The vast sums unlocked by a mechanical shark unleashed the power of the national release, And Jaws was also the first time studio executives invested huge sums toward marketing by advertising their movies on television networks.

There’s also a macroeconomic dimension to blockbuster cinema. The  revolution that began with Jaws and was entrenched with Star Wars in 1977 came during the Great Inflation, a period of economic turmoil in the U.S. similar to the one moviegoers are living through today. Inflation rates in the late ’70s and early ’80s were consistently above 10%, and economists are widely predicting a new era of “stagflation” as the 2020s come to seem more like the disco era than the Jazz Age. 

Dergarabedian says hard economic times have often lent themselves to escapism on the screen. “Even if we go back to the Great Depression, there was more moviegoing than ever before,” Dergarabedian said. “Nothing provides a great escape like the movies.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that the superhero boom began in earnest with The Dark Knight and Iron Man in 2008, the year the Great Recession began.

And the new Top Gun appears to be riding the wave of heightened interest in old-school blockbusters.

“It’s almost like the pandemic is enabling Hollywood to hit the reset,” Dergarabedian said. “It can go back and learn from the ’70s with movies like Jaws and the Star Wars movies, which reinvented the blockbuster era.”

“[Maverick] is definitely a throwback to a bygone era, and I think people really appreciate that it’s kind of old-fashioned storytelling,” he added.

If Top Gun: Maverick is as massive a success as projected, surely other studios will take notice. 

“Every movie that opens is a case study for Hollywood,” Dergarabedian said. “Nothing talks in Hollywood like a big blockbuster success, and that may change the paradigm and change the attitude by studios.”

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