Did Tom Cruise Really Save the Theatrical Business?

If a major Hollywood star really wanted to save its ass, he’d champion a much wider array of release strategies over just one.

Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back, touting successes in the moment at the expense of seeing the bigger picture. You couldn’t ask for a more literal demonstration of that narrow-minded tendency than Steven Spielberg crediting Tom Cruise for “saving Hollywood’s ass” and possibly “the entire theatrical industry” as well.

That exchange went viral this past week in a clip of the two men at the annual Oscar nominee luncheon, and it stood out as a rare peek at the self-congratulatory echo chamber where the industry lives at its highest levels. As this weekly column looks at sustainability for the film community, Spielberg’s remarks demanded a closer look.

If your entire definition of the theatrical industry comes down to box-office juggernauts, then sure, Spielberg has a point: “Top Gun: Maverick” made close to $2 billion after two years of doom-and-gloom prognostication that exhibition was on a downward slope. Cruise’s insistence on a traditional theatrical window for “Maverick,” which could have slid onto Paramount+ a few weeks after its opening if the actor-producer hadn’t insisted otherwise, forced the industry to acknowledge that a big franchise product doesn’t have to be smushed into a small screen so fast.

Most movies, however, aren’t “Top Gun: Maverick.” The true saviors of the theatrical industry in the wake of pandemic disruption reflect the ongoing fragmentation of the business and the need for innovation. That’s how a wide range of cinema finds success with the audiences it deserves.

While nobody wants to take two of the most powerful movie people to task in public, several people in the specialty business privately fumed to me this week about the myopic nature of Spielberg’s remarks. The most obvious example from last year of genuine exhibition prowess isn’t “Top Gun: Maverick,” which essentially restored faith in an old-school approach to tentpole releases aided by massive IP.

Instead, consider “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a zany and unprecedented sci-fi immigration story with no preexisting identity in the market until a few weeks before it came out. When the movie was in its earlier stages, producers had to decide between offers from Focus and A24, which promised a longer theatrical lifespan than the Universal subsidiary ever would have provided.

The result was striking proof that visionary entertainment can have a prolonged theatrical life propelled by word of mouth tied to the singular nature of the experience. In contrast to the homogeneity of a “Top Gun” sequel, “Everything Everywhere” proved the currency of originality has a long tail. (A24 executives don’t brag in public, but expect to see the theatrical aspect of the “Everything Everywhere” release playing a role in the final stages of its Oscar campaign.)

These unassailable metrics don’t tell the whole story. If Spielberg had repeated his same assertions to the Daniels at the nominees lunch, he still would have missed the point about the current state of the market. Today’s fragmented landscape means there is tremendous risk to traditional releases, but smaller, stranger work leaves room for experimentation with wider relevance to the state of moviegoing. Which brings me to “Skinamarink.”

Still from Skinamarink. Photo Credit: Shudder



I was late to the party on Kyle Edward Ball’s lo-fi haunted-house movie, but after realizing it was generating buzz in January more than any Sundance premiere, I made a point to see it when I returned from Park City. Sitting down at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square on a weeknight, I was stunned to find a robust crowd of young people crowding the 7 p.m. show, and even more impressed by that turnout once I saw the thing. “Skinamarink,” for the uninitiated, doesn’t fall into any familiar horror movie buckets. A gritty, slow-burn dance of angular hallways, eerie shadows, and unsettling closeups of old cartoons, “Skinamarink” essentially depicts the experiences of two young kids trapped in a house with a malevolent presence. However, with the exception of the occasional jump scare, this atmospheric mood piece has more in common with the slow-burn experimental work of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose last movie, “Memoria,” toyed with unexpected jump scares in similar ways), with shades of Maya Deren’s dreamlike, proto-Lynchian short “Meshes of the Afternoon.”

If “Skinamarink” had screened at Anthology Film Archives, it would have been an easy win for audiences reared on avant-garde experiences. Put it in a VR headset as a 360 video and its means of tapping into experiential terror would make total sense.

At the AMC, plenty of viewers grew restless, and at the end it was clear that many abhorred the movie’s glacial pace — but they also couldn’t stop talking about it. Outside the theater, I heard passionate defenses and deconstructions about What It All Means, as viewers turned to their phones for deeper clues. This was a theatrical success mandated by the current online ecosystem, readymade to appeal to younger audiences whose market share will only grow in the near future.

The movie, which initially leaked online and became a TikTok conversation piece before its theatrical life, has become a small-scale phenomenon that proves opportunity lurks in unlikely places. “Skinamarink” has grossed over $2 million on a budget officially listed at $15,000, though that Canadian dollar figure translates to more like $11,000 U.S., and the movie itself looks like it cost closer to $5 and some favors. The success of “Skinamarink” speaks to the interplay of internet chatter with evolving moviegoing habits, as well as the synergy between streamers and theatrical entities.

The movie had already become a mild viral phenomenon when it surfaced at the Fantasia International Film Festival last year and got acquired by AMC’s horror streaming entity Shudder, but sister brand IFC saw the potential of a theatrical life a few weeks ahead of its home release.

“We understood fully that not everyone would like the film,” IFC Films president Arianna Bocco told me this week, “but everyone wanted to be part of the conversation.” Given the earlier leak, they had to act fast. “We found a fairly open date in January where we could get screens,” Bocco said. “Some of the marketing had already been done for us because it was out there. We knew there was audience for it. Sometimes, that’s half the battle.” The movie never played on more than 809 screens across North America. “It’s not cannibalizing the exposure for Shudder subscribers,” Bocco said.

Now that nearly every studio has its own streaming presence, companies like IFC face greater competition. “But there’s also more room for experimentation,” Bocco said. “Things have changed. We have more metrics to target the right audiences and how we can develop a release strategy that incorporates all the new ways people make decisions now.”

If “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Skinamarink” speak to two extremes of theatrical success, “EO” sits somewhere in the middle. The Cannes-winning saga of a forlorn donkey was picked up by Sideshow last fall, one year after the new theatrical distributor pulled off a similar feat with “Drive My Car” by guiding a three-hour Japanese drama to massive commercial and awards success. This weekend, “EO” becomes the only international Oscar nominee of the season to cross $1 million at the box office, and it has yet to finalize a streaming plan.

Sideshow capitalized on curiosity around the movie, an immersive cinematic investigation into animal consciousness, as well as critical enthusiasm for octogenarian director Jerzy Skolimowski’s work. After “Drive My Car,” Sideshow CEO Jonathan Sehring wrote me, “we really wanted to find something as special to follow up with that would bring art house audiences back to movie theaters. It was very clear to us at Cannes that ‘EO’ was just that.”



Courtesy Everett Collection

As with “Skinamarink,” Skolimowski’s movie is an immersive experience that intrigues people enough to make it feel worth their time. This was evident at Cannes, when Skolimowski thanked all seven donkeys who played the lead.

“It helped create a curiosity and playfulness around the film that we were able to build upon,” Sehring said. Later, Skolimowski’s writing partner and wife Ewa Piaskowska noted that “like Tom Cruise,” one of the donkeys in the movie did its own stunts. The punchline resonated because “EO” and “Top Gun: Maverick” both premiered a few days apart at the festival. Months later, they continue to demonstrate the sheer range of cinematic experiences that define the scope of the theatrical market.

Of course, not all successes are so evident. Another Cannes hit that found distribution out of the festival was Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” which landed with the theatrical evangelists at Neon. Sadly, director Ruben Östlund’s gripping social satire petered out at $4.8 million at the domestic box office, around one-fifth its budget. Perhaps because of that, Neon’s Tom Quinn begged off when I asked for his own thoughts about the “Tom Cruise saved theaters” narrative as it emerged this week. “Our numbers speak for themselves,” he wrote — although that’s not quite true, at least not in public.

As I reported last year, Neon is among the rarified companies that maintains a lucrative output deal with Hulu; though the payout from the Disney-backed streamer may have been higher if “Triangle” had been more of a theatrical success, it still found its way into awards season with Best Picture and Best Director nominations in part because an ambitious buyer created theatrical buzz. The movie seems poised to do well when it finally hits Hulu next Friday, March 3. But we won’t know if it does, since Hulu numbers aren’t public. If Tom Cruise really wanted to save the business, he’d force more transparency for data in the streaming space, so the industry could adapt a greater understanding of the interplay between the theatrical and streaming markets.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise


Or, he might fight for these output deals to remain central to the way major streamers do business with smaller companies. Deals like the one that Neon made for “Triangle of Sadness” also helped save the theatrical business: They ensured that serious distribution companies could make competitive offers on edgy movies and force them into a higher level of awareness in the industry.

These deals can’t be counted on to remain unchanged. The recent news that Showtime has been consolidated into Paramount+, resulting in widespread layoffs and uncertainty about how much longer the Showtime brand will last at all, comes with an arthouse question as well.

Showtime maintains several output deals with specialty distributors, including with A24 and Bleecker Street. Showtime reps didn’t respond when I asked if its output deals might change under the new structure, but sources tell me that Showtime’s executive vice president of content acquisition has been telling clients that he’s in a bit of a holding pattern while waiting to figure out the status of future output deals. Among the more significant companies to take advantage of that opportunity, Bleecker Street has always had the option of putting its movies on Paramount+, so it may be safe for now; A24’s deal, however, expires later this year and the company is not expected to renew.

All of which is to say that the resources for supporting theatrical movies remain in constant flux. “Top Gun: Maverick” may have consoled the industry into a false sense of security, the kind of mentality that Hollywood prefers by default. But if Tom Cruise really wanted to save Hollywood’s ass, he wouldn’t be fighting for the success of one theatrical model; he’d be rooting for all of them.

Got your own ideas about what it will take to truly save the theatrical business? As usual, I welcome feedback to this weekly column: [email protected]

Last week’s column about the growing market for AI storytelling elicited a few notable responses. Here’s one of them.

I would argue AI is already shaping the movie industry significantly despite it being invisible to viewers and many creatives. Filmmakers receive streamer mandates that feel spit out not by a table of executives but the company’s algorithm metrics. So although AI may provide useful tools to creatives at the time being, I’m afraid we’re already living in a time where the marketplace for original films from auteurs is shrinking and greatly favoring formulaic content engineered to just entertain.

My response to this: attempt to make films that expose it. Here’s my free pitch: Ruben Östlund’s next target of satire should be the current state of the film industry and its race to automate the next great Hollywood franchise.
—Documentary filmmaker and cinematographer (anonymous)

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