Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Are Movie Stars Overrated?

In his Tuesday column for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein discussed the failure of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to bring an audience to Body of Lies (the generic title might actually have something to do with it). Goldstein then went on to postulate that audiences today are immune to the charms of big movie stars and that stars are no longer worth their astronomical salaries and gross points.

The truth is every study of the issue for quite a while has found that movie stars are overpaid. And anecdotally, nearly every top star in the last few decades has had a major flop at the height of their career. Jack Nicholson followed up his monster star turn as the Joker in 1989’s Batman with the bomb The Two Jakes. Arnold Schwarzenegger followed up Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2 with the disastrous Last Action Hero. Which didn’t stop his next movie, True Lies, from becoming a hit. After Risky Business, Top Gun and The Color of Money, Tom Cruise did Cocktail. And then of course there’s Russell Crowe who followed up Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind with disappointments Master and Commander and Cinderella Man.

I was once in a meeting where someone mentioned I had done Sweet Home Alabama. A development exec, rather rudely, said, “oh, that movie only made money because of Reese Witherspoon.” I then pointed out that the same summer my movie came out, Reese did The Importance of Being Earnest. And Sweet Home Alabama made more its opening day than the other movie made its entire run. Now I think Reese is a terrific actress and Sweet Home Alabama just wouldn’t be the same without her. But the point is, even though audiences love her, they won’t go see her in just anything.

Lately it’s been trendy to say Will Smith is the only star right now who guarantees a movie’s opening (someone is quoted in Goldstein’s article saying just that). But I think maybe Will Smith opens movies because he’s good at picking movies that open. Whether it’s I Am Legend or Pursuit of Happyness, his movies all have a strong, easy to articulate hook – unlike Body of Lies which is the inspiration for Goldstein’s column. (I think Tom Hanks owes much of his success to a similar talent for picking hit movies.)

So if stars don’t actually get butts in seats, why do studios insist on having them? Because they’re insurance for nervous executives. If a studio head greenlights a movie full of unknowns and it fails, he opens himself to criticism. “Why didn’t you get a star?” If he greenlights a movie with Russell Crowe and it fails, he can shrug and say, “Hey, I made a Russell Crowe movie. Who wouldn’t do that?”

Movie stars are not completely worthless, of course. They do draw attention to a movie and are nice to have for promotion. They do well on talk shows and can get interviews in magazines prior to an opening. And many of them are stars because they're talented, charismatic actors who make the movies they're in better. But anybody could probably rattle off a list of movies that were made with unknowns and did huge boxoffice. Movie stars are not a requirement for box office success.

There’s a lot of buzz now that the era of movie stars is over, that studios are belt tightening and rather than simply take it out on the craft unions, they’re finally going after star salaries. Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it. Studio heads will still be drawn to the movie star security blanket even if logically they know it’s false security. But maybe there's some hope that the question of "who's going to star" will no longer be the main criteria for making a movie.

1 comment:

TheWorm said...

Movie stars are over rated and most of the new movies brought to the box office are complete flops. Everything has been done before and they are basically scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas.

I tend to agree that movie stars and singers aren't worth an annual salary of $30,000. To be honest most of them don't bring any substance to life. Are any of them curing diseases through medical science? Are any of them changing the economic problems in this country? How many of them are creating more efficient ways to use energy, or making some sort of positive impact with their intellect? I would say that the majority of them are worthless, and there energy would be better used breaking rocks in prison.