The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 06, 2022 1:00 am

Summer Movie Preview: Time for a comeback story?

LINDSEY BAHR | Associated Press

This summer at the movies, Tom Cruise is back in the cockpit behind those iconic aviators. Doctors Grant, Sattler and Ian Malcolm are returning for another round with the dinosaurs. Natalie Portman is picking up Thor's hammer. And Jordan Peele is poised to terrify us with the unknown. Again.

Hollywood is bringing out some of its biggest and most reliable players for the 2022 summer movie season, which unofficially kicks off this weekend with the help of Marvel and Disney's “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” and runs through the end of August. It's an uncertain time for the movie business as studios and exhibitors are still making up for losses incurred during the pandemic and adjusting to new ways of doing business, including shortened release windows, competition from streaming and the need to feed their own services. And everyone is wondering whether moviegoing will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

But though the pandemic lingers on, there is optimism in the air.

“We're still waiting for older audiences to come back. But it really feels like we've turned a corner,” said Jim Orr, the head of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures. “You get the impression that audiences want to be out, they want to be in theaters. I think it's going to be an extraordinary summer.”

Last week, studio executives and movie stars schmoozed with theater owners and exhibitors at a convention in Las Vegas, proudly hyping films that they promise will get audiences back to the movie theaters week after week.

Expectations are particularly high for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which Paramount Pictures will release May 27 after two years of pandemic postponements. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer says he never wavered for a moment in wanting to release “Top Gun: Maverick” – a full-throttle action film made with extensive aerial photography, practical effects and up to six cameras inside fighter jet cockpits – exclusively in theaters.

“It's the kind of movie that embraces the experience of going to the theater. It takes you away. It transports you. We always say: We're in the transportation business. We transport you from one place to another, and that's what 'Top Gun' does,” Bruckheimer said. “There's a lot of built-up demand for some movies, and hopefully we're one of them.”

The movie industry has already had several notable hits in the past six months too, including “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” now the third-highest-grossing film of all time, “The Batman,” “The Lost City” and, though smaller, “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” The hope is that the momentum will only pick up in the coming months.

Before the pandemic, the summer movie season could reliably produce over $4 billion in ticket sales, or about 40% of the year's grosses according to Comscore. But in 2020, with theaters closed for the majority of the season and most releases pushed, that total plummeted to $176 million. Last summer presented a marked improvement with $1.7 billion, but things were hardly back to normal – many chose to either delay releases further or employ hybrid strategies.

Now everyone is refocusing on theatrical, though slates are slimmer. The ticketing service Fandango surveyed more than 6,000 ticket-buyers recently, and 83% said they planned to see three or more movies on the big screen this summer. And, not insignificantly, Netflix last month also reported its first subscriber loss in 10 years and expects to lose 2 million more this quarter.

“Finally, it is movie time, with blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster,” said Adam Aron, chairman and CEO of AMC Theatres, the nation's largest theater chain, which has two locations in Fort Wayne.

Analysts are predicting “Doctor Strange 2” could open to $170 million this weekend, double that of the first film. Marvel and Disney then follow that with the new Thor outing.

But superhero movies alone don't make for a healthy or particularly compelling cinematic landscape. There have to be options for theaters to survive.

“Our business can't devolve into just tentpoles and branded IP. We really need to continue to serve up as broad a slate as we possibly can,” Orr said. “We have something for every audience segment. Audiences are craving that and exhibitors are craving that.”

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