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Top Gun: Maverick and The Impact Filmgoer

Brendan Ryan

In a market saturated by the superhero and make-believe war, a film about the American military has achieved the highest domestic gross of all time. However, its reach is not only domestic: Top Gun: Maverick has raked in over US$1.4 billion worldwide.

An action movie might seem trivial, like Friday night entertainment and nothing more. But, like the impact-minded investor doing their due diligence before buying a stock, the ‘impact filmgoer’ can benefit from knowing who made the movie they are watching—and what they want you to see.

Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie studios—namely, the eight majors (MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., RKO, Universal, United Artists, and Columbia) who produced 95% of all American films—dominated the market with vertical integration. Combining production and distribution, this system allowed studios to make films on their own sound stages with their own contracted actors before screening in theatres owned by the studio.

Today, movies rarely reach the highest heights without the backing of wealthy producers and a major distributor to screen it across the world. Indeed, Maverick benefited from a confluence of industry power: connected to a blockbuster predecessor; co-produced by production company Skydance Media and Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer; and distributed by Golden Age major Paramount.

But why trace this power to its source? Even though the impact investor cannot tap into this exclusive market, understanding who makes the movies of the zeitgeist—and why—simply applies the principles of impact investing to where we invest our media attention.

Though it might seem a descendant of vertical integration, Maverick was staked by multiple players—and to complicated effect. Chinese media conglomerate Tencent Holdings owns a minority stake in Skydance itself, and reportedly withdrew funding over pro-American military messaging. To boot, following Tencent’s withdrawal, previously ambiguous symbols were restored to Taiwanese and Japanese flags on Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) jacket—a seemingly small detail which shows the filmmakers’ attention to impact. Even in a film where the ‘enemy’ is ambiguous, the dynamics have real-world consequences.

Similarly aware, the US military was involved in the making of the film in exchange for assistance with aircraft and shooting locations. In the making of the 1986 original, the US Navy made significant alterations to the original script as well as provided the aircraft that feature so prominently. Such a hands-on approach is more than likely motivated by the optics of the film, and what impact it might make for the Navy’s image.

Indeed, the original Top Gun was a lucrative return on investment for the US Navy. Eager to repair a tenuous image post-Vietnam, the Navy saw a sharp uptake in recruitment in tandem with box office returns. So appealing the film was to coming-of-age audiences that Cruise suggested a sequel would be ‘irresponsible’ in a 1990 interview. Interestingly, though well in production prior, Maverick’s release chimes eerily post-Afghanistan with this original purpose—the parallels of which are even visually apparent.

Any nefarious reasons for involvement in filmmaking, however, must be balanced with practicality. The making of a blockbuster, let alone one with the scale and logistical difficulty of Maverick, necessitates a careful alignment of moving parts. After all, a movie featuring fighter jets needs fighter jets.

Nevertheless, the responsible filmgoer will pay attention to the stakeholders and the decisions they make when creating our entertainment. Forming an awareness of impact in media is an investment in oneself that will pay dividends well into the future.

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