Movies love a comeback story — this summer, it’s their turn

Summer Movie Preview
This image released by Marvel Studios shows Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in a scene from “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
(Marvel Studios via AP)

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 Multitverse 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 if 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 on May 27 after two years of pandemic postponements. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer says he never waivered 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 two 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. He touted franchises like “Doctor Strange 2,” “Top Gun 2,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” (June 10) and “Thor: Love and Thunder” (July 8), “new film concepts” like Jordan Peele’s “Nope” (July 22) and “Elvis” (June 24) and family friendly offerings from “Lightyear” (June 17) to “Minions: The Rise of Gru” (July 1).

“It’s a bold statement, but this summer could potentially be on par with 2019, which would be monumental for the movie industry,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore.

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, which picks up with Hemsworth’s character traveling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy after “Endgame” and wondering “what now?”

“Thor is just trying to figure out his purpose, trying to figure out exactly who he is and why he’s a hero or whether he should be a hero,” said director Taika Waititi. “I guess you could call it a midlife crisis.”

The film brings back Portman’s Jane Foster, who becomes The Mighty Thor, Waititi’s Korg and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, and adds Russell Crowe as Zeus and Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher. Waititi has said that it’s the craziest film he’s ever made.

“It’s a great, really fun, weird little group of heroes, a new team for Thor with Korg, Valkyrie and The Mighty Thor,” Waititi said. “And, in my humble opinion, we have probably the best villain that Marvel’s ever had in Christian Bale.”

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.”

Universal is proud of their diverse summer slate that includes a certain dinosaur tentpole, family animation, thrillers and horrors, comedies like “Easter Sunday” (Aug. 5) and period charmers from Focus Features like “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (May 20) and “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (July 15).

Jason Blum, the powerhouse producer and head of Blumhouse, hopes that Scott Derrickson’s supernatural horror “The Black Phone,” featuring Ethan Hawke in a rare villain role, is going to be the special “not superhero movie of the summer” when it hits theaters on June 24.

There’s more coming to theaters than just franchises. There are literary adaptations, like “Where the Crawdads Sing,” with Daisy Edgar-Jones, non-stop action rides like “Bullet Train” (July 29), with Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock, Baz Luhrmann’s drama about the life and music of Elvis Presley, a mockumentary about a tiny seashell (“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” June 24), romantic comedies like “Shotgun Wedding” (June 29) in which Jennifer Lopez’s wedding party is taken hostage, Regency-era fun in “Mr. Malcolm’s List” (July 1) and creepy hair-raisers like “Watcher” (June 3), “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” and “Resurrection” (both Aug. 5).

“Annihilation” writer-director Alex Garland also has a new thriller, “Men,” coming to theaters May 20. Jessie Buckley plays a woman who retreats to the English countryside for some peace following a personal tragedy only to be confronted by more horrors from the men in this quaint town, all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear.

As someone who makes challenging, original films for the big screen, Garland is a little worried about the movie industry and the seismic shifts that are happening under the surface that are “partly cultural and partly economic.”

“Every time an interesting film comes out and underperforms, I get a kind of gnawing anxiety about it,” Garland said. “If the only films that make money are for younger audiences, something cultural changes. Something changes about the sorts of films that get financed, why they get financed.”

“It almost feels old fashioned or actually rather boring, but I do think there’s a value in cinema,” he added. “A film like ‘Men’ functions differently in a cinema. Not being able to stop it until it’s ended means that it has a qualitatively different effect.”

Streaming companies, meanwhile, are still going strong. Netflix has a massive 35+ film summer slate, including the spy thriller “The Gray Man” (July 22), directed by the Russo brothers and starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans and “Spiderhead” (June 17), with Chris Hemsworth. There’s a documentary about Jennifer Lopez (“Halftime,” June 14), an Adam Sandler basketball joint (“Hustle,” June 8) and a Kevin Hart/Mark Wahlberg buddy pic (“Me Time,” Aug. 26).

Some of the most interesting titles from this year’s Sundance Film Festival are being released by streamers too, including “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” (Hulu), “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Apple TV+), “Emergency” (Amazon,) and “AM I OK?” (HBO Max).

“Streaming has a place in the world, but it’s not the only thing in the world,” said Blum, who is convinced that there is still an appetite for going to theaters. “There were people out there saying the movies were over. I never thought that, but I was concerned about how much demand was left. But it appears that that part of our world is not going to disappear anytime soon.”

For Bruckheimer, the equation is perhaps even more simple.

“It all depends on the movies. It’s always about the movies. If there’s stuff people want to see, they’re going to show up,” Bruckheimer said. “I always use the analogy: You have a kitchen in your apartment or home, but you like to go out to eat. You want a different meal.”