Movies love a back story. This summer, it’s their turn. | Entertainment

This summer at the movies, Tom Cruise is back in the cockpit of these iconic aviators. Doctors Grant, Sattler and Ian Malcolm return for another ride with the dinosaurs. Natalie Portman picks up Thor’s hammer. And Jordan Peele is about to terrify us with the unknown. Still.

Hollywood is introducing some of its biggest and most trusted cast members for the 2022 summer movie season, which unofficially kicked off with the help of Marvel and Disney’s “Doctor Strange and the Multitverse of Madness” and runs until the end of August. Studios and exhibitors are still making up for losses incurred during the pandemic, adapting to new ways of doing business, including shortened release windows, competition from streaming and the need to power their own services, and ask if cinema will ever return to pre-pandemic levels.

Although the pandemic persists, there is optimism in the air.

“We’re still waiting for older audiences to come back,” said Jim Orr, head of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures. “But we really feel like we’ve turned a corner.”

Studio executives and movie stars chatted with theater owners and exhibitors at a convention in Las Vegas last week about hyped movies they say will bring audiences back to 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 gave up wanting to release “Top Gun: Maverick” — a full-throttle action movie made with lots of aerial photography and practical effects — exclusively in theaters.

“It’s the kind of movie that embraces the experience of going to the theater,” Bruckheimer said.

Before the pandemic, the summer movie season could reliably produce more than $4 billion in ticket sales, or about 40% of the year’s revenue according to Comscore. In 2020, that total dropped to $176 million. Last year it scooped up $1.7 billion, but things were barely back to normal – many opted to delay releases further or employ hybrid day and date strategies.

This summer, even if some slates are finer than usual, everyone is refocusing on the theater. Ticketing service Fandango recently surveyed more than 6,000 ticket buyers and 83% said they plan to see three or more movies on the big screen this summer. Netflix also reported its first loss of subscribers in a decade last month and expects to lose two million more this quarter.

Adam Aron, president and CEO of AMC Theatres, the nation’s largest theater chain, is particularly excited about the steady stream of blockbusters arriving in their theaters. He touted franchises like “Doctor Strange 2,” “Top Gun 2,” “Jurassic World: Dominion” (June 10) and “Thor: Love and Thunder” (July 8), “new movie concepts” like “ Nope” by Jordan Peele. (July 22) and “Elvis” (June 24) and family offerings from “Lightyear” (June 17) to “Minions: The Rise of Gru” (July 1).

And it looks like the summer will be off to a great start: analysts are predicting “Doctor Strange 2” could open at $170 million this weekend, double the first film. Marvel and Disney then follow that up with the new Thor, who takes over Hemsworth’s character after “Endgame” and wonders “what now?”

“It’s a really fun, weird little group of super heroes,” said director Taika Waititi. “And, in my humble opinion, we have probably the best villain Marvel has ever had in Christian Bale.”

But superhero movies alone aren’t a healthy cinematic landscape. Universal prides itself on its diverse summer lineup that includes some dinosaur mast, family-friendly animations, thrillers and horrors, comedies and period charmers from Focus Features like “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and “Mrs. Harris is going to Paris.”

“Our business cannot be limited to tentpoles and branded intellectual property,” Orr said. “We have something for every audience segment. The public wants it and the exhibitors want it.

Jason Blum, the powerhouse producer and head of Blumhouse, hopes Scott Derrickson’s supernatural horror “The Black Phone” could be one of those special “no superhero” escapes of the summer when it opens on June 24.

Beyond the franchises, there’s a wide range of options: Dramas (“Where the Crawdads Sing,” “Elvis”); action shots (“Bullet Train”); hair lifters (“Watcher”, “Bodies, Bodies Bodies”, “Resurrection”); and even a mockumentary about a tiny seashell, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.”

“Annihilation” writer-director Alex Garland also has an original thriller, “Men,” which hits theaters May 20. Jessie Buckley plays a woman who retreats to the English countryside for some peace after a personal tragedy only to be faced with more horrors from the men of this quaint town.

Garland is a little worried about the film industry and the seismic shifts happening below the surface that are “part cultural and part economic.”

“Every time an interesting movie comes out and underperforms, I feel a kind of gnawing anxiety about it,” Garland said. “If the only films that make money are for young audiences, something cultural changes. Something is changing in the types of films that are funded.

Streaming companies, meanwhile, are still going strong. Netflix has a huge summer slate of over 35 movies, including spy thriller “The Gray Man,” directed by the Russo Brothers and starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Other streamers are releasing some of the hottest tracks from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” (Hulu), “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Apple TV+), “Emergency” (Amazon) and “Am I Okay?” (HBO Max).

“Streaming has its place in the world, but it’s not the only thing in the world,” said Blum, convinced that there is still an appetite for theaters.

For Bruckheimer, it is perhaps even simpler.

“It all depends on the movies. It’s always about movies,” Bruckheimer said. “If there are things people want to see, they’re going to show up.”

AP Film Writer Jake Coyle contributed from New York.

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