In the 27th November edition of 3 Longs & 3 Shorts we had highlighted Y Combinator founder Paul Graham’s blog titled “Do things that don’t scale” – see http://paulgraham.com/ds.html . As luck would have it, a fortnight later we came across a perfect case study of an incredibly lucrative business which can’t be scaled (and it is lucrative precisely because it cannot be scaled). The business in question is the biggest grossing movie of 2022, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’. As this highly entertaining piece by Nicholas Barber explains, it is not just the mind-boggling amount of movie that this movie has raked it that makes it unique: “Scroll down a list of the highest grossing films per year since 2012, and you’ll see two different Avengers sequels, plus Captain America: Civil War, which is an Avengers sequel in all but name. You’ll also see a Spider-Man sequel, a Transformers sequel, a couple of Star Wars sequels, and a cartoon.
No disrespect to any of them, but it’s clear that cinema’s biggest global hits are now science fiction and fantasy blockbusters, featuring superhuman characters and lots of flashy digital imagery. But not in 2022. This year’s international box-office champion was Top Gun: Maverick, a Tom Cruise vehicle that featured real people in real planes – and has so far raked in almost £1.25 billion ($1.5 billion) worldwide. That’s around £400 million more than the runner up, Jurassic World: Dominion….Expectations weren’t exactly sky high, then, when Top Gun: Maverick eventually opened in May 2022 – but that may have worked in its favour. Viewers were hoping for a nostalgic guilty pleasure. What they got was one of the best Hollywood movies in years – a film that earnt a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% from critics, and 99% from audiences.”
Barber says that Top Gun’s success is attributable to three factors (all of which are similar to Paul Graham’s “Do things that don’t scale” dictum).
Firstly, it is a really well made movie: “As written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Cruise’s regular Mission: Impossible collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, Top Gun: Maverick accomplishes an almost impossible mission itself. It continues a story that began in 1986, but it delivers as a stand-alone story, too. It keeps the structure and setting of the original by having a group of cocky pilots training (and playing beach games) at a US Navy jet-fighter school, but it improves on the original in every respect. The plotting, the acting, the dialogue, the head-spinning aerial sequences – all of them are polished until they gleam. And, of course, the film’s exemplary skill and efficiency are embodied by its leading man, back in the cockpit as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, doing more of his own stunts than ever, and looking better than he did in 1986.”
Secondly, rather than dwelling on escapist fantasies made on an industrial scale every year, Top Gun Maverick, made 36 years after the original movie, focuses on themes of most normal people identify with i.e. ageing, memories, mortality, holding on, etc. Barber says that Cruise understands this aspect of cinema better than any modern superstar: “When Cruise was interviewed onstage at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the main theme was his tireless labouring over every detail that might make his films more entertaining. His constant questions, he explained, were: “How do we create these effects on audiences? Is what we’re doing communicating?” But the other theme was his determination that his films should be shown in cinemas. “I make movies for the big screen,” he declared. When asked if he’d let a screening platform have one of his films first, he chuckled in a Tom Cruise-ish way, “It’s not going to happen – ever.””
Thirdly, Top Gun Maverick is selling something that is super scarce, and hence super valuable, these days – a superstar with a four decade track record of delivering high quality entertainment on the big screen alongside another star from the previous century who is fighting a real life battle with cancer: “Not only was Top Gun: Maverick terrifically well made, it was based on an intellectual property that was recognisable but not over-familiar, it boasted the movies’ brightest superstar, alongside another actor poignantly returning to the screen in the wake of cancer treatment, and it came out just after the peak of a pandemic. How could any studio recreate a phenomenon like that? There have been articles asking what Hollywood could learn from the film’s staggering success, but the answer is: nothing. Top Gun: Maverick won’t set any trends because it isn’t part of a trend. It’s unique.”
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