Friday, July 4, 2008

A Unified Theory of Movie Stars

Ok, I'm going to begin with the end. Here's a summary (or abstract) of this article. After you read it, everything else is just my proofs:

After being a star-driven market for almost a century, cinema-going is no longer tied to star power. Instead, movies guarantee an audience through franchise recognition, CG spectacle, being pretty good, and being fun. Stars, even the most successful ones such as Will Smith, can only enhance the box office success of movies that have these attributes, and can rarely be used in place of them. The only exception is certain comedians such as Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, but even the number of comedic movie stars has recently decreased, and Ferrell himself doesn't even seem to be a sure thing anymore.

The Article:
I think, after dancing around the issue for a while, I'm finally going to attempt to deal with the entire depth and breadth of (the lack of) movie stars in today's environment. I'll take some passages from Richard Corliss' review of Hancock (,8599,1819466,00.html) as a starting off point.

Corliss writes: "It's my theory — and I have the stats to back me up — that Hollywood is in its first ever post-movie-star era. Big celebrity names no longer guarantee box-office hits. Casting dramatic stars like Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, etc., no longer guarantees a movie's commercial success; and the more reliable comedy stars, from Adam Sandler to Ben Stiller, lose much of their audiences when they try something a little different. To all this, Smith would say ha, and rightly so, since he's the big exception. He actually deserves that overused epithet "the last movie star.""

I think the most telling thing to draw from this is Corliss' dead-on claim that this is Hollywood's first post-movie-star era. It's never happened before. Sure, from 1895-1910 we might have been in a pre-movie-star era, but since the teens, we've had movie stars. And now we don't.

Corliss also provides the definition of a movie star that I always use: they guarantee a movie's commercial success. And finally, he provides several exceptions, which I'll get to. So, without further ado, and with thanks to Richard Corliss, a complete analysis of movie stars:

Movie Stars and their Nonexistence

1. Movie Stars No Longer Exist
This is the fundamental assumption of this post, and it's already been backed up extensively by me ( and by (
Really, what these two posts have proven is not that there are no movie stars, but that Angelina Jolie and George Clooney are not movie stars. Personally, though, it is my opinion that Clooney and Jolie are as close to classical movie stars as we can get right now (outside of Smith, who I'll deal with later), and they have not delivered the goods. The movie star era is either over or laying fallow (my bet: over)

2.The Presence of a Particular Actor Will Influence a Film's Success
Wanted is a good example of this. Just after I proved that Angelina Jolie is not a movie star, her new movie made big money. But first, I would like to point out that I don't think people went to see the movie just for her - people wanted to see this movie (it had most of the characteristics which make a hit, as we'll see later). But I would be a fool to say that her presence didn't help a great deal. To say that there are no movie stars is not to say that name actors don't help a film succeed. But they are no longer necessary, and there is no actor that people will follow if they don't want to see the movie otherwise.

In short: make Wanted without Angelina Jolie, and you'll make a few million dollars less. Make a movie with Jolie that's not an action-packed adventure, and you get A Mighty Heart, which made less than $10 mil.

What Has Replaced Movie Stars

Nothing sells movie tickets like being a part of a franchise. You can tell this when movies like Pirates 3 and Spider-Man 3 make all the money they make, even though they suck. Nothing, and I mean nothing, puts people in the seats like being part of a recognizable franchise. If you don't believe me, perhaps you would be interested to know that Spider-Man 3 made $336 mil and that Pirates 3 made $309 mil, even though both of them are terrible. But a much better example of this is the Austin Powers series. The first of those movies was by far the best (they actually all have roughly the same metacritic score) but the first one made $54 mil and 2 and 3 both made more than $200 million. The difference: the first was on its own. The second and third were part of a franchise.

Note: Executives seem to believe that remaking a 60s TV show gives you franchise cachet. They are wrong.

2. Spectacle
This is the one, even more than franchises, that drives pretentious film critics insane. The people want CG. They want explosions, spaceships, guns, tanks, airplanes, and people in spandex swinging from building to building in New York City. The people love spectacle.

This is the only explanation I can come up with for the success of every Jerry Bruckheimer movie ever that wasn't a sequel. Case in point: National Treasure. National Treasure made $170 mil, wasn't a sequel, and starred Nicolas Cage post his period of relevance. It got a 39 Metacritic score, so it didn't even have #3. All it had was spectacle. And it made millions.

3.Being a Pretty Good Movie
Being a great movie is a crapshoot; at the theater I worked at, people walked out of both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood claiming that they were among the worst movies they'd ever seen. But being a pretty good movie is rewarding.

Over at, Erik Lundegaard has attempted to prove that people actually listen to movie reviewers. He fails to do this. What he does prove is that movies that get good reviews tend to have a better per-screen average than movies that don't get good reviews. But you don't need critics for that - just word of mouth. In other words, assuming the critics are good at their jobs and actually identify the movies that are pretty good, and the people also tend to go to movies that are pretty good (which I think they do) then you don't need critics.

But Lundegaard has proved something: being a pretty good movie does help you make money. I would say, between 50-80 on Metacritic is the way to go.

Duh. Fun movies make more money. This may be more the case now than ever before, but it's always been the case. Out of Africa made a lot of money in 1985. Back to the Future doubled it.

So, you're a movie executive, and now you know that to make money, you should make movies in an established franchise, with lots of explosions, and you should actually make it pretty good. But aren't there still some ways to make money through stars? Maybe. Let's ask Richard Corliss

1.Will Smith
Corliss writes:
"To all this, Smith would say ha, and rightly so, since he's the big exception. He actually deserves that overused epithet "the last movie star.""

That may be so. But I'm inclined to disagree. Corliss cites an impressive array of Will Smith movies that made big money, all on the July 4th weekend: "Independence Day; Men in Black; Wild Wild West; Men in Black II; I, Robot" to which he adds Hancock. This seems plausible. But when we take those movies (and especially when we add non-July 4th blockbusters like I am Legend, Bad Boys II, Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch and Enemy of the State) and put them up against our four rules for how to make money, it becomes less clear that Smith really is "the last movie star."

1.Franchise: 2 of the movies in question (Men in Black II and Bad Boys II) are part of franchises, but otherwise, we're mostly not dealing with franchises. Point in Corliss' favor: Smith is making near-franchise money in non-franchise pictures.

2.Spectacle: Here's a point against Corliss: Hitch and Pursuit of Happyness are the only examples not loaded with explosions and other CG set-pieces. And the biggest money makers are I am Legend ($256 mil), Men in Black ($250 mil) and Independence Day ($306 mil). The more CG, the more money.

3.Decent Movies: Corliss points out that Smith's movies "Aren't that good." This may be the case, but are they pretty good? Answer: Yes. Even including turds like Bad Boys II and Wild Wild West, Will Smith's movies average a Metacritic score of 56. That's not that good, but it's in our range for pretty good movies.

4. Fun. This one's obvious. With the exception of Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith makes fun movies. It's what he does.

Conclusion: Although I have no explanation for Pursuit of Happyness, the fact that it succeeded outside of the formula is balanced by the fact that Ali bombed - only $58 mil. Although Happyness bucked the trend, Ali equally bucked the "Smith is the last movie star" trend. As such, I don't think Will Smith is the last movie star. He's an actor who can enhance your movie's box office success, but he's also an actor who generally makes fun, spectacle-filled, pretty good movies. I think if George Clooney were obsessed with making a fun, action-packed CGI fest every summer, he'd have similar results. Maybe not quite the same...but in the same ballpark. Please, excoriate me if you disagree.

Corliss says "the more reliable comedy stars, from Adam Sandler to Ben Stiller, lose much of their audiences when they try something a little different."

This is the second exception: certain comedians (most notably Ferrell and Sandler; Stiller is old news and Myers just flopped big time) will make money if you put them in any kind of vehicle suited for them (ie, not an "art" movie like Stranger than Fiction or Punch-Drunk Love). Over the last 5 years for Ferrell and 10-15 for Sandler, all you've got to do is take a silly premise and stick them in it and you'll make decent money, even if those movies are terrible.

This is definitely a star driven thing; by all accounts, Walk Hard is funnier than I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Blades of Glory, but only had John C. Reilly in it, so it only made $18 mil. Finally, Semi-Pro also bombed at the box office, so maybe Ferrell is also no longer a guarantee.

There's one question I don't even begin to know how to answer: Why? What happened to the movie stars? If you've got some ideas, let me know. That'll be a future post.


Rick Olson said...

I think a big comet hit the earth, causing massive amounts of dust to become suspended in the air, in turn causing global winter ... oh, wait. Those are dinosaurs ...

I have no idea what happened to all the movie stars, but I'm not sure I buy your argument that there are not any any more ... it all hinges on Corliss' definition that a movie star is someone that can guarantee box office. I'm not sure that's an adequate definition ...

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Luke Harrington said...

Dude...excellent piece here. I read the whole thing...then I went back and read it again, from start to finish. That's how good this is. (Yes, I'm sucking up. But hey, it's all true.)

I've been thinking about that last question ("Why?"), though, and I think there's no pat answer -- it's a multitude of smaller reasons.

I think, perhaps, that the primary reason is that actors have a lot more freedom in their career choices now (what with the end of the studio system half a century ago, and the rise of a powerful guild), which prevents typecasting for those who want to avoid it.

I'd also say that the rise of special effects (thanks to George Lucas and his ilk) has created a market where style really can replace substance. (There were countless stars in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but special effects? Virtually nonexistent.)

There's probably also something to be said for the rise of the supermarket tabloid, which has replaced the "star" with the "celebrity" -- i.e. someone famous for existing, not for having talent -- in addition to generally making people sick of the stars they might otherwise worship (both by showing them at their worst and at overexposing them).

Additionally, it seems that key to the marketing of almost any film anymore is the generation of Internet buzz, and it's much easier to get the fanboys talking about killer special effects or the newest, most awesome entry in a franchise than it is to get them gushing over "Clooney's most nuanced performance to date!"...or whatever the latest acting-related thing is.

Primarily, though, I'd have to say it's the marketing machine -- arguably the same thing that killed the critic. The bottom-line-obsessed mantra is to find your audience, and then market towards it with zero shame, which usually involves creating a brand name and sticking with it. The studios can no longer control actors, and their star's latest drunken rampage is all but guaranteed to make the cover of every publication in the they do the next best thing (or, from a business standpoint, an even better thing), and create brand names that they can control. It's simply a much better moneymaking guarantee that sidesteps the human factor.

Those are the thoughts I have. Out of curiosity, what's our working definition of "guaranteeing box office success"? I'm willing to bet that every actor has had at least one flop in his or her career. If we take this definition at face value, there's never really been a "true" movie star (or at least, they've ben extremely rare.

As a side note, have you thought about retiring that picture of Angelina with a strawberry? It scares the crap out of me whenever I see it. :)

Graham said...


I'm so glad to hear from you on this piece - I spent a great deal of time on it, and it's nice to have someone read it so closely.

First, in response to Rick's comment: I think Luke hit the nail on the head that there's no such thing as a movie star any more - just the celebrity. So even if you don't like my terminology - even if you want to call John Wayne and Angelina Jolie both movie stars - one of them is famous for making movies, and one for having their picture taken.

As to all Luke's thought: I'm gonna have to cop-out and say that I think you're right almost across the board, and I'm gonna have to use your comment as a starting point for my next post. But I will say this: I think you're dead-on about branding. I don't know so much about controlling the brand, but branding is the key here. Gable or Stewart used to (as you say, b/c of typecasting) be a brand. Now are brands are something else - not actors. Franchises or, as you suggest, simply a new brand for every film based on marketing.

Final points:You're right, I was being too loose with a definition of movie star that involves "guarantee." Let's say, a movie star is someone whose mere presence usually guarantees success. There, that was easy.

I use the strawberry picture until everyone acknowledges Jolie's terrifyingness.

Heather said...

I think when stars were big, they had images and stuck with them. Stars are a known entity. Cary Grant was Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn was Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant didn't pound his chest and go shooting people. Katharine Hepburn didn't run around trying to find fulfilment in husband and children. Grant quit when he was 62 because he knew audiences didn't want to see him not play the romantic lead. He's really interesting if you're examining stars. He was the first really successful actor to go independant because he knew what kind of parts he should play and that he wasn't going to get anywhere sitting around at Paramount taking the parts that Gary Cooper turned down. He created this idea of Cary Grant and perpetuated it and exploited it whether he was playing the shy Cary Grant (Bringing up Baby), the brash Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), the sensitive Cary Grant (Holiday), the cruel Cary Grant (Notorious), the bewildered Cary Grant (North by Northwest), or the loutish Cary Grant (Father Goose). He couldn't play John Wayne, for instance, and John wayne couldn't play him. The same thing with Cagney, Cooper, Gable, Bogey and the rest of them. They (or their studios) understood that there were limits to a star's persona and part of a star's success was recognizing and utilizing the limits of that persona. Will Smith plays Will Smith characters. They're certainly not all the same but they're all Will Smith. Harrison Ford was one of the most successful movie stars of the last quarter of the 20th century because he played Harrison Ford. I don't think it has anything to do with acting ability. People wouldn't accept of believe Harrison Ford if he was playing a gay hairdresser. Common sense would dictate that he would be completely inappropriate for that role but famous actors often make errors in the pursuit of range.

Some actors are nebulous like Lon Chaney. Johnny Depp, for instance, follows the Lon Chaney career path rather than that of someone like Gary Cooper. Depp lacks a permanent, definable screen presence and can't really be a star. He's essentially a character actor with fabulous cheekbones. Tom Cruise has lost star status by acting crazy in public. The films of Jolie, Clooney, and Pitt frequently have not made much money in the great scale of things.

Hollywood historian Jeanine Basinger said some interesting. She said that the likes of Cary Grant and his ilk regarded their career as that of professional entertainers and performers and not as artists. Spencer Tracy, a tremendously gifted actor, adored by Brando and Olivier, said his job essentially was to show up and read his lines. Harrison Ford also has expressed that tradesman's attitude to film acting. Actor's are artists, movie stars aren't.

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