This weekend, the summer movie season kicks off in ear-splitting earnest with the release of Top Gun: Maverick, a decades-in-the-making sequel that aims to not only restore Tom Cruise’s natural place atop the Hollywood hierarchy but serve as a rebuke to the pandemic-era argument that movie theatres are deader than the target of a F-18.
The film, which is genuinely excellent, is expected to deliver Cruise’s biggest box-office opening weekend ever – a momentous achievement until you stop to do some research, and realize that for all the actor’s star power, his largest North American launch was just a shade above US$65-million (for 2005′s War of the Worlds), or approximately one-third of a single Doctor Strange.
But the real challenge for Cruise – and for everyone who makes and enjoys in-theatre movies – is this Friday’s other buzzy releases: the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things and the Disney+ series premiere of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Like Maverick, both Stranger Things and Obi-Wan have been years in the making. Both are riding huge waves of franchise fervour mixed with comforting nostalgia. And both should lure legions of potential moviegoers … straight to their couches. Possibly for the duration of the summer, or at least long enough to put a sizable dent in Top Gun and its big-screen brethren.
I cannot speak to the quality of either new series. Critics quicker than I to request access to fresh Stranger Things episodes seem underwhelmed, while Disney isn’t making a single second of Obi-Wan available to press before launch. But both are perfectly engineered to knee-cap theatres just as they were about to claw their way back to normalcy. The streaming wars ain’t over yet – they’ve just become infinitely messier.
This new batch of Stranger Things, for starters, is Netflix’s big, shiny, fabulously expensive (reportedly US$30-million per episode) hope to erase headlines that the company is facing what I colourfully called an apocalypse. But while the streamer has been knocked down – to the tune of 200,000 subscribers, and 150 employees who were laid off due to the company’s stock market nosedive – it is not out. Netflix still has 222 million members worldwide, and after three long years without a new episode of Stranger Things, it now has an entire super-sized season to string subscribers along.
The series, the only true cultural phenomenon that the streaming giant has produced to ever sustain widespread interest over more than one season (Squid Game, you’re up next), is all but guaranteed to be Netflix’s biggest launch ever. And the first summer movie to underperform at the box office will place the blame squarely at the success of those lovable monster-hunting kids from Hawkins, Ind.
Which is how this game goes. In a perfect world, there is an entertainment ecosystem in which both theatres and streamers can feed off of one another. But because Wall Street has decided to treat studios like tech companies – they must move fast and break things, only worrying about the collateral damage later, once total market dominance is presumably established – only one Hollywood machine can win.
And here is where Disney plays a curious role, operating like a double agent with stakes on both sides of the war.
The company’s theatrical unit has a superhero-strong big-screen summer ready to go, with the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear, the latest Marvel exercise Thor: Love and Thunder, plus a potential sleeper hit in The Bob’s Burgers Movie. But with Obi-Wan and other straight-to-Disney+ productions like Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers and the forthcoming series Ms. Marvel and the Star Wars prequel Andor, Disney is hoping to lure ever more subscribers to its streaming arm, too.
Watching the Mouse House both trumpet its commitment to the theatrical experience while at the same time whisper-screaming to fans that there is more than enough to watch at home is both a terribly weird phenomenon and perfectly in line with backward Hollywood thinking circa 2022.
It is not as if Disney is sabotaging itself – technically, a dollar is worth just as much whether earned at the box office or in subscriber revenue, though Wall Street certainly prefers the latter. But if I were a theatre-owner already facing a release pipeline crunch – this summer’s “back-to-normal” movie season features a frighteningly low amount of titles compared to 2019; 37 per cent fewer, to be exact – I wouldn’t be thrilled to have new episodes of Obi-Wan competing for my audiences’ attention for the next six weekends.
All the best to Tom Cruise and his military-industrial complex buddies. But this is an Upside Down world we now live in, and Cruise – along with the rest of this summer’s dinosaurs, both of the Jurassic World and metaphorical varieties – will need all the big-gun, big-screen firepower that he can get his hands on.
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