The helicopter had the star’s name painted on it, the letters coming into focus as it landed on the retired aircraft carrier, which was adorned for the occasion with an expansive red carpet and a smattering of fighter jets. Tom Cruise. Top Gun. Maverick.
It couldn’t have been anyone else.
Decked out in a slim-fitting suit, his hair a little shaggier and his face a little craggier than when he first played Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell more than three decades ago, Cruise took the stage on the USS Midway while Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme music played in the background.
It also felt like a time capsule. The three-hour promotional escapade – which included a batch of F-18 fighter jets executing a flyover to the sound of a Lady Gaga song from the film – harkened back to the halcyon days of Hollywood glamour. Days when Disney didn’t think twice about shuttling an aircraft carrier from San Diego to Hawaii for the premiere of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in 2001. Or when the same studio built a 500-seat theater at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the premiere of Armageddon. That kind of extravagance seems almost unthinkable today, when the streaming algorithm and its accompanying digital marketing efforts have replaced the old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground publicity tour with stars circumnavigating the globe, and studios spending millions to turn movie openings into cultural events.
Making these events go were the film’s megastars. In Hollywood, stardom has an elastic definition. There are screen legends who are not box office stars. A global movie star is someone whose name is the draw. They have broad appeal, transcending language, international borders and generational differences. In short, they can get people of all ages into theaters around the world by virtue of their screen personas.
They are the kind of stars – like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone – that box office blockbusters were built around for decades.
And they are the kind of stars who no longer really exist. Actors like Dwayne Johnson, Zendaya, Tom Holland, Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pratt are ultra successful but they are also either closely tied to a specific franchise or superhero film or have yet to prove that multigenerational appeal.
Now, it’s the characters that count. Three actors have portrayed Spider-Man and six have donned the Batman cowl for the big screen. Audiences have shown up for all of them. The Avengers may unite to huge box office returns but how much does it matter who’s wearing the tights?
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Yet there is Cruise, trundling along as if the world hasn’t changed at all. For him, in many ways, it hasn’t. He was 24 when Top Gun made him box office royalty and he has basically stayed there since, outlasting his contemporaries. He’s the last remaining global star who still only makes movies for movie theaters. He hasn’t ventured into streaming. He hasn’t signed up for a limited series. He hasn’t started his own tequila brand.
Instead, his promotional tour for Top Gun: Maverick, which opens May 27, will last close to three weeks and extend from Mexico City to Japan with a stop in Cannes for the annual film festival. In London, he walked the red carpet with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (The tour would have been longer and more expansive if COVID-19 protocols didn’t make things so complicated and if he wasn’t in the middle of finishing two Mission Impossible movies.)
The actor still commands first dollar gross, which means that in addition to a significant upfront fee, he receives a percentage of the box office gross from the moment the film hits theaters. He is one of the last stars in Hollywood to earn such a sweetheart deal, buoyed by the fact that his 44 films have brought in US$4.4 billion (S$6.05 billion) at the box office in the United States and Canada alone, according to Box Office Mojo. (Most stars today are paid a salary up front, with bonuses if a film makes certain amounts at the box office.) So if his movies hit, Cruise makes money. And right now, Hollywood is in dire need of a hit.
Audiences have started creeping back to theaters since the pandemic closed them in 2020. Box office analyst David Gross said that the major Hollywood studios were expected to release roughly 108 films theatrically this year, a 22 per cent drop from 2019. Total box office numbers for the year still remain down some 40 per cent but the recent performances of The Batman, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have theater owners optimistic that the audience demand is still there. The question is whether the business still works for anything other than special effects-laden superhero movies.
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“They just don’t make movies like this anymore,” Brian Robbins, the new CEO of Paramount Pictures, the studio that financed and produced the US$170 million Top Gun: Maverick,” said in an interview. “This isn’t a big visual effects movie. Tom really trained these actors to be able to fly and perform in real F-18s. No one’s ever done what they’ve done in this movie practically. Its got scale and scope, and it’s also a really emotional movie. That’s not typically what we see in big tent-pole movies today.”
A big box office showing for Top Gun: Maverick, would depend in no small part on the over-40 crowd. They are the moviegoers who most fondly recall the original Top Gun from 36 years ago – and they are the ones who have been the most reluctant to return to cinemas.
To reinforce his commitment to the industry, Cruise sent a video message to theater operators at their annual conference in Las Vegas late last month. From the set of Mission Impossible in South Africa, standing atop an airborne biplane, Cruise introduced new footage from his spy movie and the first public screening of Top Gun: Maverick. “Let’s go have a great summer,” he said, before his director, flying his own biplane next to Cruise, shouted “action” and the two planes tore off across the sky.
Top Gun: Maverick finished production in 2020 but its release was delayed for two years because of the pandemic. Cruise declined to comment for this article. But when asked during an interview on the stage of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday (where eight fighter jets coursed across the skyline, blowing red and blue smoke to match the colors of the French flag) whether there was ever talk of turning the film into a streaming release, Cruise swatted the idea away. “That was never going to happen,” he said to applause.
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Now, theater owners across the country are keeping their fingers crossed that Cruise’s million-watt smile and his commitment to doing his own stunts – no matter the cost or the fact that he will turn 60 in July – will bring moviegoers back to theaters for what they hope will be a long and fruitful summer.
“There’s been a lot of questions about the older audience and their affinity of going back to the theatrical experience,” Rolando Rodriguez, CEO of the Wisconsin-based Marcus Theatres, the fourth-largest theater chain in the country, said in an interview. “Top Gun is certainly going to bring out the audience of 40 and over and momentum builds momentum.”
Audiences have remained loyal to Cruise through his offscreen controversies – his connection to Scientology, the infamous couch-jumping interview on Oprah, his failed marriages, including to actress Katie Holmes. And he has remained focused on the process of making movies and then promoting them to as many people as possible – often through very controlled public appearances where he is unlikely to face any uncomfortable questions about his personal life that could embarrass him or turn off moviegoers.
“He eats, sleeps and dreams this job,” said Wyck Godfrey, the former president of production for Paramount. “There is nothing else that takes his attention away. He outworks everyone else. He knows every detail.”
The question now, in the world of streaming and superhero intellectual property, is does it still matter?
WE DON’T CREATE MOVIE STARS ANYMORE
Cruise came of age in Hollywood in the shadow of movie stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, where the name above the title meant everything. Show up to see Schwarzenegger play a cyborg assassin? Sure. How about a cop forced to play with kindergartners? Absolutely. What about a twin separated at birth from an unlikely Danny DeVito? Why not? In those days, the genre didn’t matter. Moviegoers showed up for the actors.
That is not the case today.
“We don’t create movie stars anymore,” said Godfrey, adding that studios have been pulling back on marketing and publicity commitments for years. “As a result, there are less and less meaningful names who will help open a movie.”
Robbins agreed that it was much more difficult today to become a global star in the vein of Cruise, not because of the studios’ commitments but rather the state of the industry.
“It’s Batman. It’s Spiderman. It’s very different,” he said in an interview from Cannes. “And it’s not just because a lot of these characters are hidden by a mask and tights and a cape. It’s a very different type of filmmaking. And the world is different because of streaming, and all of the other content, the fight for attention is just much more fierce than ever before. Thirty-six years ago when Top Gun came out, there was no streaming, there was no cellphone. There was no internet. We went to the theater to be entertained. There’s just so much choice now.”
The entertainment world has undergone seismic change. But Cruise’s success also owes a debt to his tirelessness. Will Smith, in his 2021 memoir, affectionately called Cruise a “cyborg” when it came to his endurance on the promotional circuit. Reminiscing about his own efforts to reach the pinnacle of stardom, Smith said that whenever he’d land in a country to hype a new movie, he would ask the local executives for Cruise’s promotional schedule, which often included 4 1/2-hour stretches on a red carpet. “And I vowed to do two hours more than whatever he did in every country,” Smith wrote.
Smith wasn’t the only one to notice. Studio executives have come to rely on Cruise’s commitment to promotion as his superpower.
“He’s one of a dying breed that will literally work the world and treat the world as though each region is massively important. Because it is,” said Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution. “So many others roll their eyes. ‘I don’t want to do that.’ With Tom, it’s always built in. It’s a massive undertaking. But it pays off. It’s why he has legions of fans around the world.”
Some would argue that the age of the movie star died when the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over pop culture and movies based on known intellectual property seemed to be the only way to get large numbers of people into theaters. Cruise has not been immune to these changes.
In the past decade, Cruise starred in original titles like American Made, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow – all movies that played up his action bona fides. None were hits. His reboot of The Mummy, which was supposed to jump start Universal Pictures’ monster movie series, was a disappointment for the studio, generating only US$80 million in domestic receipts. The series never took off.
But while not taking part in any superhero franchises, Cruise has managed to capitalise on intellectual property that he’s already successfully exploited. Roles like homicide investigator Jack Reacher, and secret agent Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, have performed well at the box office. He’s hoping to pull that off again with Top Gun: Maverick.
“I think there is so much choice in the world right now with the amount of content that is produced that every movie has turned into a bull’s-eye movie,” said David Ellison, CEO of Skydance, the producer of Top Gun: Maverick and a number of other films with Cruise. “The opportunity to have something work and be anything less than A-plus is simply not the marketplace that we’re living in.”
Glen Powell, one of Cruise’s co-stars in Top Gun: Maverick, cites him as one of the reasons he pursued acting. Cruise is also the reason Powell is in the film. Powell initially tried out for the role of Rooster, the tough guy son of Maverick’s former wingman Goose – a part that went to Miles Teller. Disappointed when he was offered the role of the cocksure daredevil Hangman instead, Powell only took the part after Cruise gave him some advice: Don’t pick the best parts, pick the best movies and make the parts the best you can.
“I will never forget that moment,” Powell said in an interview. “He asked me, ‘What kind of career do you want?’ And I’m like, ‘You man, I’m trying to be you.’”
As such, he’s studied Cruise’s career and is trying to emulate it. He’s shied away from the superhero genre, so far, and has some theories on what makes Cruise unique.
“He is the guy that’s not trying to occupy the IP. He’s trying to tell a compelling story that just ends up becoming the IP because it’s so good,” Powell said. He sees a substantive difference there – the difference between going to the movies to see Tom Cruise, the movie star, or going to see other intellectual property. Or, as Powell puts it: “There’s a difference between stepping into fandom rather than creating your own fandom.”
He knows he’s learned from the master. “Even if I pick up a little of what Tom taught me,” he said, “I’m going to be way more prepared than any other actor out there.”
He might. Or he might be learning from an outdated playbook.
There is a moment in Top Gun: Maverick where Ed Harris, playing Maverick’s superior, tells him, “The end is inevitable. Your kind is headed to extinction.”
And Cruise, still holding on to that brash self-confidence that made him a movie star four decades ago, grins at him and replies, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”
There are plenty of people in the movie industry who hope he’s right.
By Nicole Sperling© The New York Times Company
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.