Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Tom Cruise’s 1980s hit, has just crossed the trillion-dollar mark, making it the highest-grossing film of the year and a symbol of the post-pandemic resurrection of movie theaters. While Lightyear, the spin-off of the acclaimed Toy Story franchise, has crashed at the box office, failing to cover its $200 million budget.
Both films have garnered media and social media attention in recent months, so the disparity in their revenues cannot be blamed on a lack of attention or exposure to the public. In fact, the Lightyear trailer was the second most-watched in Pixar’s history, with 83 million views in the first 24 hours after its release.
So what could be the reasons for the abysmal difference in performance between the two movies?
Top Gun: Maverick and Lightyear, two very different marketing strategies
Both Top Gun: Maverick and Lightyear have had their doses of political controversy; however, how they have handled it has been radically different between the two. While Tom Cruise’s film tried to avoid the scandal in an elegant and discreet way, Disney chose to embrace and enhance the controversy as the main — and almost the only — commercial asset for its film.
After the release of the teaser trailer for Top Gun: Maverick in 2019, some fans noticed that the iconic fighter jacket of Tom Cruise’s character was missing the flags of Taiwan and Japan, which would have been digitally erased so as not to upset the Chinese government. This generated some debate on social networks, where fans were disappointed that a film that was supposed to extol the global military hegemony of the United States had caved in to the Chinese giant.
The filmmakers took note of the fans’ concerns and put the flags back in the jacket. Possibly, this steadfastness influenced the Chinese company Tencent to quietly withdraw from the production a few months later — in which it had a 12.5% stake — for fear of angering the Chinese Communist Party, which ultimately did not allow the film to be released in China.
The flags issue in Top Gun: Maverick remained a controversy and was resolved in a more or less discreet way, without affecting its revenues, since despite not having the succulent Chinese market, the film has grossed impressive figures in the domestic market and the rest of the world.
However, Disney took advantage of the controversy of the now infamous lesbian kiss in Lightyear to perpetuate a new form of advertising: false flag marketing.
A false flag attack, in military terms, is a covert operation designed to make it appear to have been carried out by enemies, when in fact it has been perpetrated by themselves.
This ruse, extrapolated to marketing, is what Disney seems to have specialized in lately. The Obi-Wan Kenobi series, for example, manufactured a controversy about racism towards its female protagonist even before the premiere. And with Lightyear, similarly, it bet all its publicity on the “homophobia” card.
Disney’s executives — concerned about its suitability for a children’s film — had decided to cut the lesbian kissing scene in mid-March 2022, and it was Disney’s own employees who rioted and publicized the kiss, “coincidentally” coinciding with Disney’s public stance against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act.
What under normal circumstances would have been a minor Disney internal anecdote, due to the company’s political agenda, became the cornerstone of Lightyear‘s marketing campaign, leaving the film inextricably linked to this controversy, and condemning it to not being screened in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
While the domestic and other markets rewarded Top Gun: Maverick, Disney’s promotional campaign caused audiences to turn their backs on Lightyear.
This false flag style of marketing is always accompanied by corresponding insults from the company towards a large part of its potential audience, who are openly accused of being racist and homophobic, and in a veiled way of being ultra-right wing, lumping them under the label of “toxic fans.”
Actor Chris Evans, who gives voice to Buzz Lightyear — Tim Allen‘s replacement was not exempt from ideological intrigue either — went so far as to call critics of the kiss “idiots.”
Disney wants to shoehorn its woke political agenda into its productions, and in order to justify itself it seems willing to gestate and feed ideological polemics with which to insult its potential customers and blame them for its failure. This, perhaps, is not the most advisable sales technique.
By contrast, in Top Gun: Maverick there is racial diversity, but without making it a central plot point, or a reason to try to lecture the audience. There is a classic romance between a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman, in which the screenwriters show us that she is simply managing her business and her love life, and not trying to explain to us that she would make a better fighter pilot and a better human being than Tom Cruise’s male character.
In short, in Top Gun: Maverick there is good entertainment cinema with all the classic elements of the action genre, dispensing with any hint of wokeism, which has probably made it triumph by word of mouth among an audience that simply wants to go to the movies to enjoy themselves and not to be insulted or lectured on how to think.