top gun: maverick – marketing recap

How Paramount has sold an unexpected but long-awaited sequel

Top Gun: Maverick movie poster from Paramount Pictures
Top Gun: Maverick movie poster from Paramount Pictures

The original Top Gun was released 36 years ago, launching Tom Cruise into the realm of super-stardom and inspiring a generation to fantasize about taking F-14s as high as they can go, debate Meg Ryan versus Kelly McGillis (there’s no wrong answer) and seek out the best pair of aviator sunglasses around.

A sequel should have been an instant no-brainer, but we had to wait nearly four decades before the stars aligned, with Top Gun: Maverick hitting theaters this weekend.

Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still a hotshot who’s spent years avoiding promotions so he can keep flying as a test pilot. When former rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an admiral, needs someone to train a group of pilots for a specialized mission he calls on Maverick to give them the edge they’ll need. One of those pilots happens to be Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former radar officer and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, who died in the first film.

Additional pilots are played by Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Danny Ramirez and others, with Jon Hamm playing Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, who’s skeptical of Maverick’s abilities and presence on the base. Jennifer Connelly also joins the cast as Penny Benjamin, a character only referenced in the first film as the admiral’s daughter Maverick had a fling with.

With Joseph Kosinski directing, let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.

announcement and casting

Rumors and reports had circulated for a while but a Tweet from Cruise in May 2018 seemed to confirm that the movie was actually happening and might even be in production. That was followed shortly by news that Kilmer would return in his role.

Late 2018 saw Cruise post a video from the movie’s set featuring him talking about motion-smoothing on modern TVs and how it distorts the viewing experience. It wasn’t specifically about the movie, then, but because he was wearing a flight suit in the video it certainly helped remind people it was in production.

In a surprise move, Paramount included about two minutes of footage in its CineEurope presentation to exhibitors in 2018.

Part of the story was confirmed by the much-hyped search for an actor to play Goose’s son, a role eventually nabbed by Teller. Cruise also spoke about the movie early on while promoting other projects, including a stop on “Kimmel” during the Mission: Impossible – Fallout publicity cycle, also in 2018.

Teller spoke about the challenges of working with Cruise – namely keeping up with the older actor – while promoting “ Too Old To Die Young” in 2019.

the marketing campaign phase one: I’m going to need a beer to put these flames out.

The first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) debuted in July 2019. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feature Cruise’s face but instead shows the back of Maverick’s jacket, decorated in service patches, as he looks out of a hanger while a jet cuts through the sky in the background.

Familiar music plays as the first trailer (37.6m YouTube views), released in July at San Diego Comic-Con, begins. In addition to lots of footage of fighter jets performing incredible maneuvers, the focus is on how Maverick is still undeniably Maverick, unable to conform to the system to the extent he’s been passed over for promotion many times in the last 30 years. This despite the medals and accomplishments he’s racked up in that time. There are shots that invoke scenes from the original, including Maverick racing a jet on his bike and a scene of sweaty, shirtless men playing football, all meant to amp up the nostalgia factor in the audience.

One notable change from the first movie is the footage shot via cockpit cam showing Cruise behind the stick of the fighter. That’s a continuation of the approach taken for other movies with the star – especially recent Mission: Impossible entries – where the focus has been on how Cruise really does many of his own stunts and learns new skills so he can do more of what his character would. We’re meant to believe, then, that the actor was really flying the jet, part of the brand he’s built up, one that sells the audience on a more visceral experience instead of a collection of special effects that can overload the senses.

That SDCC presence included the first ever appearance there by Cruise, who showed up on a panel with some of his castmates to talk about the film. While he was in San Diego, Cruise stopped by “Conan” to talk more about returning to the movie after 30+ years.

A few months later, in December of that year, the next poster was released showing Maverick leaning against his car and looking on as two F-18s fly by overhead.

The first full trailer (21.2m YouTube views) came out at the same time, immediately establishing Maverick as being back at the Top Gun training base, now as an instructor to younger pilots. While there’s plenty of focus on the next generation – including two pilots that may have a connection to characters from the first movie – we also see Maverick still has the same cocky attitude as well as a few tricks left to show the kids. Fast planes, beach football and more are all on display here, helping to establish familiarity with the audience while still selling a sequel.

December’s full trailer was accompanied by the release of Snapchat’s first-ever reaction filter, allowing users to see a split screen with the trailer on top and their own face inserted into the cockpit on the bottom. Giphy stickers also came out around then with key moments from the trailer available to add to your own messages/posts.

A featurette released just after the full trailer hit exactly the expected notes, focusing not only on the real flying done for the film but how much Cruise himself did. Additionally, it’s mentioned how he inspired and pushed the younger members of the cast to do their own flying in order to keep up, all of which was captured through state of the art cameras and other equipment.

The commercial that aired during the 2020 Super Bowl emphasizes both the incredible visuals of high-speed flying and the drama that will come from Maverick having to face the actions of his past and deal with the legacy he’s leaving behind.

A handful of photos came out in late January along with more details on the relationships between the characters.

When everyone went into quarantine in March, video meetings became popular among those working from home. Paramount released backgrounds that could be uploaded to Zoom profiles to add some Top Gun flair to those meetings.

the marketing campaign phase two: where’d *who* go?

It was among the last of the major summer releases to do so, but eventually the movie’s original June 2020 release date was pushed to December because of the pandemic-related theater closings. In July Paramount pushed it even further out to July, 2021 and then to November, the latter a move reportedly driven by Cruise’s desire to engage in a worldwide press and publicity tour, betting that Covid-related lockdowns would be lifted later in the year and allow for that.

The early 2020 release of an autobiography from Val Kilmer allowed him a number of opportunities to reminisce on the making of the original Top Gun as well as how he lobbied hard for a role in this film.

Barbaro was profiled in a piece that seemed to be half about the movie and half about the high-end watches she was now partial to. A bit later Kosinski was interviewed about working with Cruise again and bringing the new actors into the world of Top Gun.

Hasbro previewed a crossover with their Transformers toy series in July, 2020.

An interview with Hamm had him talking about working with Cruise, his first experiences with the original Top Gun and more. Similar ground, including how he was spending pandemic quarantine and the frustration of the movie’s repeated delays, was covered in an interview with Teller.

the marketing campaign phase three: he was inverted

Things then got very quiet for over a year, with only sporadic activity on the social media front – mostly amplifying people’s posts for Halloween, Top Gun Day and other events – until late 2021.

An interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer from September of that year had him talking about Cruise’ insistence on having Kilmer be part of the sequel. There was also a group profile of many of the young actors, including Powell, Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Lewis Pullman and Danny Ramirez, who are jumping in the pilot’s seat for the sequel.

Before things could get on track for the November 2021 release date, Paramount pushed it even further back to May 2022.

In August 2021 Paramount gave CinemaCon attendees a first look at 13 minutes of footage from this and other upcoming movies. This marked three years since footage was shown to CineEurope.

Out of relatively nowhere a couple cross-promotional items popped up beginning in late 2021.

Hasbro was back again, this time revealing a look at a new Barbie figure inspired by Barbaro’s “Trace”.

The year ended with Ellis appearing on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie, including the repeated delays in release.

After the Ohio State University Marching Band performed a tribute to the first movie in November, Cruise seized the opportunity and invited all its members to a special screening of the sequel.

the marketing campaign phase four: talk to me, goose

Football was also the theme of 2022’s first marketing efforts, with Cruise appearing in a spot that mixed promotions for the AFC championship game with footage from this movie.

The actor then appeared on “Today” to promote the film in a more straightforward manner.

A co-branded Porsche commercial was released in February that contained footage from the movie

In an interview about his new album, Johnny Marr revealed he had recorded a new version of Hans Zimmer’s iconic theme for the sequel.

Ellis hosted the inaugural Anthem Awards at the end of February.

Reports emerged in mid-March that Paramount planned to screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, with those reports later confirmed with the addition that it would include a retrospective/celebration of Cruise’s entire career.

The next trailer (24.6m YouTube views) came out later that month. Some young hot shot pilots are assembling as we see Maverick has been called back to action by Iceman, now an admiral, over the objections of those in charge. What starts as teaching quickly turns into combat as we also see Rooster confront Maverick over the death of his father, some beach football and lots more in an exciting spot that focuses on the in-cockpit POV the audience will get for many of the flight sequences.

The poster that accompanied the trailer shows Maverick walking away from his fighter.

That was followed by a 30-second commercial version of the trailer that boiled the footage down to the essential thrill-inducing elements.

Elaborate theater standees in the shape of a fighter pilot helmet but with a massive screen playing the trailer were placed around the country at the beginning of April to help audiences arriving for other movies get a taste of this one.

Kosinski shared how about 800 hours of footage was shot in total, a massive amount resulting from so much time being needed to teach the actors how to use their equipment and other technical details.

The Dolby Cinemas-exclusive poster released in mid-April shows Maverick racing his motorcycle alongside an F-18, a scene from the new movie that recreates one from the first film. The ScreenX poster uses the cockpit cameras that were a focus of the campaign to show a phalanx of jets trailing Maverick’s fighter. D-Box’s one-sheet has Maverick looking pensive on an aircraft carrier while a pair of fighters fly by. Maverick is inverted on the 4DX poster and is looking out as he flies by the carrier on the IMAX one-sheet.

That process of teaching the actors about in-flight cinematography, the makeshift flight school Cruise put everyone through and more were covered in a featurette released in mid-April. A piece detailing the military training process the actors took part in came around the same time and added to the idea that this wasn’t just a role for anyone but a fully immersive experience.

At CinemaCon in late April 2022 exhibitors were offered an extended look at the film, with critics in attendance immediately giving it massive praise as an emotional visceral old-school blockbuster. A panel with Kosinski, Bruckheimer and others featured them all talking about the multiple release delays, why this was the right time for a sequel and more.

As that was going on Lady Gaga also teased an original song she wrote for the movie.

While he was technically promoting his Paramount+ series “The Offer,” Teller also talked about this movie when he appeared on “Kimmel ” around that time.

In an interview, McQuarrie shared how he approached writing the story, including a conscious effort to not simply ape or recreate iconic moments from the original but instead create something that would stand on its own.

Cruise joined the rest of the cast and crew at the red carpet premiere in early March. Held on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, it included Cruise arriving via helicopter, comments from him and others about how it came about and how they worked in Kilmer’s return.

After that San Diego event the cast and crew engaged on a publicity tour hitting stops in Mexico, Japan and the U.K. in addition to Cannes.

The full video for “Hold My Hand” from Gaga came out a few days later, mixing shots of her performing the song with footage – some of which is new here – from the movie. With the windswept nature of the video, the shifting back and forth from black-and-white to color and more it gives off major 80s vibes, making it a perfect fit here.

Another short featurette was devoted to explaining the rationale behind aviator callsigns.

Powell talked about the process of shooting the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel.”

Select AMC Theaters and Cineplex locations held screenings of the first Top Gun that included an extended preview of the sequel in early May.

XBox offered an exclusive movie-themed version of the popular Flight Simulator video game.

Kosinski explained the controversial decision to not invite either Meg Ryan or Kelly McGillis back for the sequel, saying he wasn’t interested in looking backward. Not sure that is satisfactory, but it’s a choice.

AMC Theaters shared a few exclusive cast and crew interviews.

What it was like to join the sequel and what she had to learn for the role was covered in an interview with Connelly.

OneRepublic leaned into the beach football sequence for their video for “I Ain’t Worried” from the movie’s soundtrack.

The Cannes Film Festival event was indeed a spectacle, with fighter jets doing a flyover before an enthusiastic response from the audience to the screening of the film. While in France Cruise was interviewed about his insistence the movie play in theaters and not on streaming, the surreal nature of watching a retrospective of his career and more. Connelly also spoke about working with Cruise. How he and the other filmmakers wanted to do something original was covered in an interview with Kosinski.

Short videos like this one for Rooster introduced each of the major characters with the actor playing them offering some background information.

An assemblage of elite athletes appear in a TV spot that focused on how those who refuse to settle for anything less than excellence are the true mavericks in the world.

You could get a free ticket to the movie if you spent $25 at Applebee’s.

Another featurette focuses on the respect the actors gained for the prowess and intensity of the actual naval aviators they worked with during filming as well as the fact that everything seen on screen is something the actors are actually doing. Similar ground, along with more about this being a big-screen experience was covered in a Dolby-exclusive featurette.

Cinemark also had an exclusive making-of featurette.

Cruise filmed a Fandango-exclusive greeting to audiences, welcoming them back for the summer movie season.

Connelly appeared on “The Late Show” and “GMA” to promote the film while Cruise stopped by “The Late Late Show” and other programs.

overall

First off, an admission: I never thought this movie would happen. It seemed like one of those that was just not fated to move from pipe dream to reality. No one seemed very interested in doing it and the more time passed the less likely it seemed a viable story could be developed.

I’m happy to be proven wrong. Based on the campaign and with the addition of the positive reviews that have given the movie a staggering 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes this looks incredible, a worthy addition to the Top Gun mythos.

On both of those fronts, you have to credit Cruise, who seems to have willed the movie into existence (and into theaters) by sheer force of will alone. Ricky Bobby may be right and Tom Cruise may actually have some form of magic, as he not only single-handedly made the film happen but did so while teaching other actors how to fly jets and more.

Tracking estimates of a $100 million four-day opening weekend may prove conservative based on the word of mouth around the movie, all of which has been supported by a slick, well-messaged marketing push that reinforces Cruise’s status ais one of the biggest stars around while also reminding us how emotional the first movie, which wasn’t really an action picture, really was.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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