Peter Bart: It’s Back To The Future For The Box Office If ‘Top Gun’ Sequel Hits Stratosphere

Box office is big news this week, not so much for its totals as for its totemic significance. Throngs will greet Top Gun: Maverick, but will kids join the grownups to see a nearly 60 year-old actor starring in a sequel to a 36 year-old hit? At the other end of the audience spectrum, will seniors conquer their torpor to catch the new Downton and even lure their kids – the movie is dubiously titled Downton Abbey: A New Era to motivate the youth quadrant.

These are edgy days for an industry seeking clues to two big puzzles: Does a broad demographic truly crave a return to the cool comfort of their movie theaters? And, if so, what sorts of movies would best combat their streamer fatigue?

In Los Angeles there’s one dark portent: The multiscreen Landmark Theater on Pico, long the cathedral of indie films, will shut its doors forever shortly after the opening of Downton Abbey. Charles S. Cohen, Landmark’s owner who is a dedicated film nerd – he owns 35 other theaters (195 screens) – has his own analyses of these questions (see below).

Those filmgoers who are Downton disdainers this week may instead turn to an alternate film multiverse whose protagonists agonize over their personal dissociative disorders. Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness competes with several other mind-benders, such as Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is set in a more indie-oriented multiverse.

“The emotional sway of Doctor Strange enables the miraculous visitation of characters from other Marvel flicks, whose every entrance is met with ejaculations of joy,” writes Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s critic.

But will the reemerging cinema audience share in the joy? History casts its shadow here: When Hollywood plunged into the Great Depression generations ago, Jack Warner promptly cancelled his cheerful musicals (42nd Street) to forge ahead with a slate of kickass gangster movies. Images of George Raft and Humphrey Bogart “getting even” with the law seemed to please battered ticket buyers. The gangsters themselves were soon to be dethroned by heroic figures of World War II.

Who will be the protagonists of the present? The acclimation accorded Coda suggested an appetite for an empathetic genre, but that film, while winning Oscars for Apple, never got a true shot at the theatrical market. Indeed, indie producers feel that the Apple-Netflix business model will in fact cripple their ability to raise production money from European territories – the streamers’ deals span all principal markets.

Still, veteran indie filmmakers like Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa believe that a re-energized Festival circuit could again provide strong launch pads for their product, as it did for their Little Miss Sunshine, Cold Mountain and Election. Their new film, Somewhere in Queens, is a warm-hearted story about an Italian-American family, directed by and starring Ray Romano.

Berger feels that indie pictures, if carefully mounted, can still capture funding and distribution, but theaters must become “welcoming places with food and wine and even book stores. The shared filmgoing experience will become even more valuable in a post-pandemic moment,” he believes.

This view is seconded by distributors like Tom Quinn of Neon who has argued that when viewers sit at home and control their experience, switching films on and off, “it is no longer cinema because there’s no emotional commitment.”

This opinion would win support from Charles S. Cohen, who, while closing the Landmark, is opening new theaters in Scottsdale, Arizona, Annapolis, Maryland and other locations and is also scouting new prospects in Los Angeles. Cohen ascribes his Landmark closing to a stubborn landlord who demanded too much money in a section of Los Angeles that had lost its luster.

“We’re at an important turning point in cinema,” Cohen argues. “Our locations must be full-fledged entertainment venues that draw audiences from all demos.” Cohen hopes that Tom Cruise’s movie will prove to be cross-generational, in contrast to this year’s early box office successes that played mainly to young males. A bountiful Downton, Cohen feels, may also energize geriatrics to re-discover cinema.

Cohen himself, who hails from a wealthy real estate family, has a stake in various aspects of cinema. Aside from his theaters, Cohen owns a library embracing almost 1,000 films representing French and other European filmmakers, plus the work of Buster Keaton, Merchant-Ivory Productions and other artists. Cohen Media also has a channel on Amazon Prime and is opening a new film in London titled Operation Mincemeat, a World War II thriller starring Colin Firth and directed by John Madden. He also produced The Great Buster, a film about Buster Keaton directed by the late Peter Bogdanovich.

It is Cohen’s hope that, by summer’s end, the clues will once again point to the rise of a newly resilient cinema.

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