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'Top Gun: Maverick' boasted a record opening weekend. Where'd the numbers come from?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Top Gun: Maverick" cruised to a Memorial Day record this weekend, $156 million. Now, that is good news for a pandemic-battered film industry. But there is one aspect of the way these numbers are reported that has critic Bob Mondello quietly muttering to himself.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Movie box office figures used to be something that only people in the movie industry cared about. In the early 1970s, when "The Godfather" became the first film to make $10 million in a single week...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

ROBERT DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) This is business, not personal, Sonny.

MONDELLO: ...No one reported that fact...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) Well, then business will have to suffer.

MONDELLO: ...Except Variety and a few other trade papers. So there was no incentive to inflate the numbers by folding so-called preview showings into the opening day. The term preview was adapted from Broadway, where actors need to play a show a few times before critics arrive. Back in the Dark Ages, these were reduced-price previews - a quaint notion. Anyway, it wasn't a cash grab. It was a theatrical necessity. That does not apply to movies, obviously. And for decades, an opening date was an opening date. Take the film franchise that put Memorial Day weekend on the map.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "STAR WARS (MAIN TITLE)")

MONDELLO: In 1977, "Star Wars" premiered nationally on just 32 screens, selling virtually every seat for every show, while a blindsided 20th Century Fox scrambled to strike more prints. Numbers were big but limited by theater capacity, and headlines mostly talked about how the film stayed at number one week after week for the rest of the summer. By the time "Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi" opened on a thousand screens in 1983...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI")

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Darth Vader) You may dispense with the pleasantries, commander. I'm here to put you back on schedule.

MONDELLO: Theater owners were ready, some cramming 24 hours' worth of showings into that opening day by starting at one minute past midnight. I worked for a chain of movie theaters back then, and I remember those first shows sold to the rafters, fans synchronizing watches and counting down to the start. Nobody jumped the gun, though. That would have been cheating. In 1989, the clock started creeping backwards. Warner Brothers allowed theaters to start opening day Batman screenings not at midnight but at 10 p.m. the night before. In 1992, for "Batman Returns," they allowed them at 9 p.m. and got some pushback, so the big movie of 1993 went back to 10 p.m. Thursday previews.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH: (As John Hammond) Welcome to Jurassic Park.

MONDELLO: But by 1996, "Independence Day" had made it 6 p.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

WILL SMITH: (As Captain Steven Hiller) Welcome to Earth.

MONDELLO: And after that? Well, if your film had a substantial want-to-see-first factor, previews became standard. Fans got used to booking night before opening seats for "Hunger Games," "Mission Impossible," "Harry Potter," "Black Panther," "Fast & Furious." In fact, the practice got so common that films that didn't have any logical reason to use it - say, the immortal Zac Efron classic, "Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES")

STEPHEN ROOT: (As Burt Stangle) We don't want you showing up stag and riling each other up.

ADAM DEVINE: (As Mike Stangle) We don't rile each other up.

ZAC EFRON: (As Dave Stangle) We never get riled up.

MONDELLO: ...Scheduled screenings in thousands of theaters the night before opening and took in a snappy $1.6 million. So we have now arrived at "Top Gun: Maverick"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

TOM CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Good morning, aviators.

MONDELLO: ...Which opened officially on Friday...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) This is your captain speaking.

MONDELLO: ...But started its preview screenings on Thursday at 3 in the afternoon - not sure by what conceivable logic that isn't opening on Thursday, but OK. It's how Hollywood rolls, except that there had been previous "Top Gun" previews. IMAX screenings all across the country on Tuesday and on Wednesday all folded into Friday for purposes of opening day bragging rights, a total of $19 million in preview money to add to the $32 million that "Top Gun" had made on its actual opening day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Having any fun yet?

MONDELLO: And it doesn't stop there. "Top Gun: Maverick" goes into the record books today with - and I'm quoting here - a record four-day Memorial Day weekend gross of $156 million, even though it took seven days to achieve that number. And why?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) It's one of life's mysteries, sir.

MONDELLO: That's about right. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.