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Will 'Top Gun' Save US Movie Theaters?

Tom Cruise in a classic tuxedo stands on a road in front of a fighter jet.
Tom Cruise attends the UK Premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" on May 19. The U.S. opening is Memorial Day weekend.
(Chris J Ratcliffe
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Getty Images)
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The last “Top Gun” movie opened more than 30 years ago.

And it’s not just Tom Cruise fans who are looking forward to this coming weekend, when the long-delayed sequel finally arrives at the multiplex. The nation’s theater owners have nothing less than their own viability at stake.

This year’s summer movie season, which kicks off with “Top Gun: Maverick,” will deliver a frank report card on the overall health and future of moviegoing, whose popularity was in decline even before the pandemic hit more than two years ago.

Outside of a few chains (like Arclight and Pacific) that are gone for good and some prominent theaters that are closing (The Landmark in West Los Angeles), most of the nation’s screens have reopened.

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But millions of ticket buyers haven’t yet come back.

At this date in 2019, total North American theatrical grosses stood at $3.3 billion. This year, those year-to-date receipts stand at $1.1 billion. Yes, that's a third of the pre-pandemic receipts.

Buoyed by over-the-top reviews, “Top Gun: Maverick” is expected to gross more than $100 million over the Memorial Day weekend. But as the latest “Spiderman” sequel proved, no single hit film can reverse plummeting theatrical attendance.

Tom Cruise waves on the red carpet to fans crowded behind barriers, many holding up phones to take pictures.
om Cruise attends the red carpet for the Japan Premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
(Kenta Harada/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
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Getty Images AsiaPac)
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The fact that streamers — especially Netflix have struggled recently is of little consolation to theater owners: the damage was already done during the pandemic. COVID exposed the inherent antiquity of the theatrical model, which essentially hasn’t changed in more than a century.

And even if “Top Gun: Maverick” takes off at the box office, movie theaters will need a steady stream of popular titles all summer. Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” and Jordan Peele’s “Nope” look promising. But the real odds of those kinds of films restoring moviegoing to what it was before? Slim, and none.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.