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.
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 (http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1819466,00.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 ExistThis is the fundamental assumption of this post, and it's already been backed up extensively by me (http://moviesetal.blogspot.com/2008/06/myths-about-angelina-jolie.html) and by slate.com (http://www.slate.com/id/2175710/fr/flyout/#Clooney)
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.
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 slate.com, 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
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.