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Movie stars and blockbusters - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Movie stars and blockbusters
I just read an EW article on expensive perks for movie stars, given to them so that studios can compete for them and so on and so forth. This is nothing new. But my question is... does this make sense? Is there any star that's currently actually completely bankable, except in the wild imaginations of studio execs looking for a guarantee? I mean, Will Smith comes to mind, but then you have to remember Wild, Wild West. I think Drew Barrymore has hit her stride doing these romantic comedies, but do people go to them because Drew Barrymore is really cool or because the movies look funny? In other words, is a Will Smith action flick or a Drew Barrymore comedy popular because clever studio execs have bribed Mr. Smith and Ms. Barrymore to star in them, or because Mr. Smith and Ms. Barrymore have chosen star vehicles that appeal to a lot of people? If it's the latter, I congratulate them on their good sense--possibly better sense than the execs who make the movies--but the good vehicle is doing them as much good as they do it. It'll be steady income in royalties for several years as well as their initial fees, and will also be mega-exposure and lots of opportunities for speaking fees and so on.

Just glancing at an adjusted list of the top 100 movies of all time (adjusted for inflation), more of them made stars than were made by them, so the concept of trying to guarantee a blockbuster by getting a big star seems... odd to me.

I don't mean to belittle actors with this. I love actors, and I respect what they do. I don't mean to begrudge movie stars a hugely fat salary--it's great to have some jobs out there that are just obnoxiously well-paid. Gives the rest of us something to envy and daydream about. But recent history doesn't seem to bear out the idea that stars create blockbusters. Even in the age of the studios, when stars did have a little bankability, they didn't guarantee anything. So why do the execs fight so much over them? If anything, I tend to agree with George Lucas's philosophy of initially casting people in the leads when they aren't terribly well known, so that people are associating their faces with the characters they're playing, and not with a big celebrity persona.

I don't think there's anything in the world that guarantees a blockbuster. You have to have the right story and you have to tell it at the right time, the time when a huge number of people respond to it. And the bitch of it is, you can't plan that. You don't know when you start a movie what the mood is going to be when it's finished and ready to go. People are ornery--you can't just say, "Boy, I'm going to have a big publicity blitz and a pretty star, and they'll just flock to me." Why did Gone With The Wind hit in 1939? I don't know. It was the inter-war period for the states, and I think it may have really hit a nerve, caught between knowing how horrific war was (WWI) and still seeing heroism in going up against an apparently vastly superior enemy (the approaching WWII). But that's just a guess. I wasn't there in 1939. The Wizard of Oz was also pretty darned big that year, and I can't think of any historical reason that should be so.

I was around in 1977 for the second most popular film on the list, Star Wars, and it's really hard to explain. It had been so long since there'd been a movie for everyone, a simple story about good people fighting the good fight... probably that's all it was. There was nothing else like it and we were starved for it. E.T. in 1982... what nerve did that hit? It was about a scientist/botonist who was empathic and cured and healed things, and a lonely boy who desperately needed a friend. It hit as divorce was rising, and it was hopeful, but was that it? Titanic is easy--we were heading toward the end of the millennium, didn't trust our contraptions, and were hearing a re-telling of the old, iconic story about human arrogance.

But can you plan that?

I mean, look at the things that hit. Who would have looked at the Harry Potter books and thought that they would be what they are, that this generation of tv-raised kids who didn't like reading would be toting around 700 page books about a nerd with messy hair?

At any rate, blockbusters aren't created by stars. I think that's obvious by, you know, looking at them. So why exactly are studio execs still convinced that if they order a private jet for Jennifer Aniston's dog (or whatever), they'll have a sure-fire hit on their hands? Why not direct that money toward just making a good movie and hope for the best with the public mood?


I feel a bit...: thoughtful thoughtful
Soundtrack: Independence Day on FX

20 comments or Leave a comment
From: godrics_h Date: April 17th, 2005 02:13 am (UTC) (Link)
My two knuts, I think lately there have been a number of successful movies with 'unknowns' and really, I dont see any stars as 'bankable' any more either. I mean yes, cute guys will get bums in seats, but a famous actor doesnt garantee success any more. Take Pirates of the Carribean for example, even though there was Johnny Depp and Orlando, it was still quite shunned, and only became successful from word of mouth recommendations after release, because it was actually a good movie. Troy had Golden Boy Brad Pitt (and a huge advertising campaign), The Butterfly Effect had Ashton Kutcher, but neither did probably as well as they were hoping. However 'The Notebook' had relative unknowns and did a lot better than expected. It seems all over the place. The only 'Sure thing' whos bankable at the moment is getting Peter Jackson as director it seems!
Anyway, yeah, thats my thought, Thanks for provoking it!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 17th, 2005 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
And when PotC was filmed, Orlando wasn't really ORLANDO, and Johnny Depp had been doing little movies and was kind of a has-been from the '80s. Keira Knightly was that girl who looked so much like Natalie Portman that she was the decoy in TPM. But guess what? Fun movie. Really fun. Just when people were thinking, "I could use a really fun movie."
rosetapestry From: rosetapestry Date: April 17th, 2005 03:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Exactly. (And they were lucky enough for the stars to align favorably for the first movie, but I wonder about the success of the next two POTC movies, now that all the leads really are "big stars.")
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: April 17th, 2005 02:13 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think star power makes a lot of difference with a great plot/story with good acting that will just hit a nerve and becomes a phenom. And if a movie is just plain awful it is still going to be recognized as awful, though star power might pay for itself (despite everything, did Wild Wild West break even- I don't remember). Where it really matters is in the mediocre movies that make up the majority of what is shown. If you are out for a weekend and there isn't anything that strikes you than if a movie has Robin Williams or Julia Roberts might just tip you in its favor, and there are some fannish people who will see a star regardless. A star might be the difference between a money loser and breaking even or even moderate profit if the movie is just kind of there otherwise.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 17th, 2005 02:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, and that's worth a pretty good salary. But all the pampering and perks? Just for break-even? And doesn't that make it harder to break even?
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: April 17th, 2005 02:31 am (UTC) (Link)
I read that also, and I just laughed. Then I kind of boggled. To give the stars these kind of things, the studios have to pay the other people in the movie less. That makes no sense to me. I mean, yes, the actors carry the movie, but if the camera man is pissed off, uh, I don't think your movie's going to be so good.

What pisses me off about the whole trying to make a movie be a hit is that they're forgetting that there's only so many movies people can watch. Same with television. It may be the best show, but if it's up against a show that everyone loves, it's not going to get any audience. Trying to split an audience is just cruel. And movies...I hate this whole importance placed on the opening weekend. If you have a movie go up against Spider-Man, Spider-Man's going to kill it in raitings, and then that movie is yanked the next week or the week after. There's such a turn over that there isn't time for people like me, who can't see movies every bloody weekend or even every month, have to wait until DVD/video to see the movie.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 17th, 2005 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Right. I mean, opening weekends are fun, but the real test of a movie's durability is its staying power anyway. No matter how big you open, if the word of mouth is bad, you'll crash and burn the next week. Stars may or may not even help with this, but even if they do, if the movie is crap, it's going to get around, and people won't do the repeat business or recommend it to their friends.

The short amount of "proving time" has really made entertainment worse. It's the same with TV shows--premiere them at some odd time, order six (!) episodes, and expect it to compete with something that's comfortably part of someone's life? Six episodes? When there are hundreds of channels to choose from and try to catch new shows on? Whatever happened to giving something a season to prove itself? If Law and Order had been competing in this market, it wouldn't have survived its first season, and now it's a highly profitable franchise company. We get all of these stupid novelty shows because people will turn in to see, "OMG, is this for real?" and then it beats better shows that might have had more staying power. Programming execs: staying power=live forever in syndication=profits, profits, profits. Long-term, stable profits. Send your kids to college profits. So why cut off a slow-starter at the knees in favor of a flavor-of-the-moment which might have high initial gains, but won't be a keeper?
leapin_jot From: leapin_jot Date: April 17th, 2005 03:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Maybe the reason the opening weekend sales are such a big deal is that the studio execs don't expect good word of mouth, have no confidence in the movies themselves? It does seem a ridiculous thing to get excited about.

One thing you didn't mention in your original post, I think some movies create a mood, a market. Harry Potter certainly did that. They're just so good that they cause a shift in the market and people's interests. Then too, Hollywood is always talking about what's in and what's out as far as what people want to watch, but that's off. I think the reality is most people are just looking for a good movie even more than they look for a good movie in a particular genre.
rosetapestry From: rosetapestry Date: April 17th, 2005 03:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I can't even count the number of movies I wanted to see (and was willing to pay at least matinee price) that left the theater before I got the chance to see them. Then, of course, I usually forget about them long before they hit the video store.

Also, about stars - everyone can be over-used in films. Remember what happened when Jude Law was in every third movie that came out last year... not all of them did well, and part of that may have been the audience wanting to see someone else once in a while. I'm currently miffed about why Ashton Kutcher has two separate-but-very-similar movies in theaters as of this coming Friday. Variety, people!
sreya From: sreya Date: April 17th, 2005 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
AUGH, tell me about it! Century City, the sci-fi/future law firm show, was AWESOME, and my roommates and I tuned in every week last year for it... for all of the three weeks it was aired. Because the execs were STUPID and put it up against the last few weeks of American Idol in the schedule, and yanked it when it didn't get the audience.

The really dumb part? American Idol wrapped up maybe a week or two later, and there was really nothing else in the slot that would have been major competition. Had they just let Century City go another few weeks, or even finish out the season, I think it would have been a big hit. They dealt with a lot of the issues people are interested in, and it was an excellent cast working in it.
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: April 17th, 2005 06:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Gone with the Wind was a huge hit in 1939 for the same reason that the Harry Potter films have been as successful as they have been today: because it was a movie adaptation of the most popular book in decades. Apparently there was the same sort of furor over who was to direct, whether or not it would be completely faithful to the book, if the "look" of the thing would be right, etc. etc. etc. As you said, though, the Wizard of Oz and others are not so easy to figure out...

And people have been trying to explain the popularity of the Sound of Music for years. I've heard it argued that there is absolutely no way that film would have been even close to as popular as it was had it come just a year earlier or a year later. It too became popular mainly through word-of-mouth, as it was pretty much panned by critics on its release. It's another good example of a movie that became hugely popular in spite of having a lot of (at the time) virtual unknowns in it... when it first opened the cast member who would have been most recognisable, at least to American audiences, was the girl who played Brigitta (she'd been on a popular sitcom of the time). Julie Andrews got really popular sort of around the same time thanks to Mary Poppins, but MP hadn't really been out long enough before TSOM's release for her to have made much of an impact...

All right, I'm babbling. I'm sorry. That's just my two four thirty-seven cents on the subject. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 17th, 2005 07:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Gone with the Wind was a huge hit in 1939 for the same reason that the Harry Potter films have been as successful as they have been today: because it was a movie adaptation of the most popular book in decades.

But that just begs the question to a different level. If not "Why that movie...?" the question of "Why that book...?" still comes up. What did Mitchell do that really hit a nerve at that point in time? I've read the book, and it's all right (though very jarring when a good guy goes to a Klan meeting!)... but I'm far enough outside the 1930s place that I can't figure out why it hit gold.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: April 17th, 2005 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
A bit OT, but I couldn't really get through Gone With The Wind. I thought that Scarlett was incredibly annoying, and was irritated at the way the reader is expected to feel sorry for her for getting married to spite Ashley and for having a child that she doesn't care for.
meneathiel From: meneathiel Date: April 17th, 2005 04:59 pm (UTC) (Link)


That is the book I took to Austria to read. I was 16 and missed a lot of beautiful scenery. I was in it for Rhett. I wanted him to dump Scarlette and find a really nice wife. So for me it was age (that was my harliquin romance phase). The movie I didn't really like as much mainly because it was too true to the book and I hated everyone but Rhett.

So no I have no clue why it's such a hit.
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: April 17th, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is true, and I have no idea. I've not seen the movie yet, and after reading the first chapter and a half of the book I have to say that I' can't understand the appeal of that, either... although my housemate read the whole thing and told me that it does get a bit better, so I may try again over the summer.

I don't know. Maybe the whole explanation is just that every now and then, something turns up at exactly the right time.
divinemum From: divinemum Date: April 19th, 2005 06:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've read the book, and it's all right (though very jarring when a good guy goes to a Klan meeting!)... but I'm far enough outside the 1930s place that I can't figure out why it hit gold.

Keep in mind that in the thirties, the south was still recovering economically from the war, shifting from an agriculture-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. There was still a huge division between blacks and whites. GWTW was an idealized portrait of the way "things had been", and many people still wanted it to be that way.

At the time that GWTW was published, there were many people who were still alive who remembered the Civil War. It made them nostalgic for "the good ole days" before the war (whether they actually remembered it or not!). There was a whole generation of people born in the years following the Civil War who were brought up on the stories of their relations and their former glory. GWTW touched a nerve with these people.

riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: April 17th, 2005 03:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
What struck me about that list is how few of those movies are rated R... there were only 3 in the top 40. Compare that to how may rated R movies they make today... sometimes it's hard to even want to go to the movies.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 17th, 2005 03:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know... tons of them are Disney cartoons.

You get that cool buzz factor on an R, but it doesn't appear to really have blockbuster power. I tried to explain that to my cousin's wife once, that to get a real blockbuster, it almost has to be G or PG, because while it can't be solely aimed at kids, it does have to be accessible to them, because if it doesn't cut across all the demographics, it's not going to hit that sweet spot. If a kid can't watch something, you're already lopping off a huge chunk of the audience. If it's so graphic that your average adult is annoyed by it, you're limiting it to special interest movie-goers. If that's your goal, great, you've succeeded. But if you want to actually get a serious break in the demographic lock, you have to make it appropriate to more ages.
missfahrenheit From: missfahrenheit Date: April 17th, 2005 11:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
... actually, the Wizard of Oz really wasn't a hit in 1939- repeated showings on TV, especially around Christmas from the 1950s onward, were a great boost to its popularity. If you check the adjusted top 100 list, it doesn't actually appear there at all.

(this is currently my first year coursework. Yay, my degree can be occasionally useful!)

scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: April 19th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a bit simplistic, but what I wish Hollywood would get in their heads is that it doesn't matter who's in the movie or what, if the movie is not good, if it doesn't have a good director/crew and/or doesn't have a good script, and/or isn't shot well, it will fail. And if a movie is truly good, it doesn't matter AT ALL who's in it, it will do well.

Some movies do strike us at exactly the right time. Such was Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. But movies with staying power don't depend on big names anymore, they depend on themselves, as movies, as art and entertainment. If they have something to say and say it well, people notice and remember.
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