Are movie studios finally getting the message that original concept and well-told stories are more profitable than expensive run-of-the-mill star vehicles? This past weekend, we saw the much hyped Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Bounty Hunter pull out a measly $20.7 million on its opening weekend. This would be a fairly good opening weekend for many movies until you realize that it was outperformed by Alice in Wonderland which is in its third week as well as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a children movie that was made with half the budget and almost no marketing or star power whatsoever.
The Bounty Hunter, made on a $40 million production budget, saw very heavy marketing and hype leading up to its release which makes its demise even more humiliating than its 8% Rotten Tomatoes score. It will most likely not even recoup its total cost and joins the long line of movies that boast a high profile movie star and ended up under-performing at the box office. Over the past year, we have seen that most of the top grossing movies did not have a bona-fide movie star. Avatar, the highest grossing movie to date, had a decent cast of familiar names but none of them were A-list movie stars when the movie was released. Same story with Transformers 2, Up, The Hangover, Star Trek, or District 9.
TABLE 1: MOVIE STAR VEHICLE FLOPS OF 2009
|FILM||US BOX OFFICE||BUDGET||MOVIE STAR|
|Did you Hear about the Morgans?||$29.58 millions||$58 million||Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Grant|
|Surrogates||$38.58 millions||$80 million||Bruce Willis|
|Duplicity||$40.57 millions||$60 million||Julia Roberts|
|Year One||$43.33 millions||$60 million||Jack Black, Michael Cera|
|Land of the Lost||$49.44 millions||$100 million||Will Ferrell|
|Funny People||$51.86 millions||$75 million||Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen|
|The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3||$65.45 millions||$100 million||Denzel Washington, John Travolta|
|Terminator Salvation||$125.32 millions||$200 million||Christian Bale|
|Angels and Demons||$133.37 millions||$150 million||Tom Hanks|
TABLE 1A: TOP 15 GROSSING MOVIES OF 2009
|MOVIE||US BOX OFFICE||MOVIE STAR?|
|2||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen||$402.1 million||No|
|3||Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince||$302.0 million||Negligible|
|4||The Twilight Saga: New Moon||$296.6 million||Negligible|
|6||The Hangover||$277.3 million||No|
|7||Star Trek||$257.7 million||No|
|8||The Blind Side||$254.3 million||Yes, Sandra Bullock|
|9||Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel||$218.7 million||No|
|10||Sherlock Holmes||$207.5 million||Yes, Robert Downey Jr|
|11||Monster vs. Aliens||$198.3 million||No|
|12||Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs||$196.6 million||No|
|13||X-Men Origins: Wolverine||$179.9 million||No|
|14||Night at the Museum 2||$177.2 million||Yes, Ben Stiller|
First thing first, what is a movie star and how do they differ from actors? Simply put, when you watch an actor’s actor perform, you are watching a character. Most of the time, when you watch a movie star perform, you are watching Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston or whoever that may be. They are basically playing a version of themselves with slight variations in appearance, voice or persona. Michael Caine had a fantastic quote that I often go back to:
“The difference between a movie star and a movie actor is a movie star gets a script — movie star Michael Caine gets a script and he says, “Now how can I change this script. It’s not quite Michael Caine. I’ve got to change it.” And they say things like, “Michael Caine wouldn’t wear that kind of thing. Michael Caine wouldn’t say that to a girl. Michael Caine wouldn’t drive that sort of car. So we’ll have to edit the script.” And everyone says, “Oh, of course, Michael, we’ll change all that.” They change the script to suit them. A movie actor, he changes himself to suit the script. He wears glasses, puts on a fat belly, gains weight, loses weight, grows a beard, moustache, any bloody thing.”
A movie star is someone who can draw audiences and whose sole presence in a movie is expected to significantly affect how profitable a movie is going to be. The so-called A-list is not some fancy subjective list that anyone can make up with big names that they like (sorry!). It is a 100-pt method called the Ulmer Scale that ranks actors in terms of their financial profitability and is (still) used by industry insiders to finance motion pictures. Generally, movie stars can generate so much revenues that the quality of the film itself is not the main driver in terms of profitability. As Caine said in the quote above, movie stars like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler, or George Clooney are some of the highest paid Hollywood stars because they can fill the seats, simply by playing a variation of themselves over and over and over again. You watch them in interviews, talk shows and movies, their persona doesn’t vary much, if at all but people love them! Movie stars mostly play in high profile, high budget Hollywood vehicles although they may try something different every once in a while.
On the other hand, an actor plays a wide range of character and actively seeks to expand his craft. Although the actor’s presence may draw some audiences, it is not the primary factor in how a movie fares at the box office. You will usually see actors straddle the line between higher profile movies and low budget arthouse-type productions. They are the ones who end up playing supporting roles next to your big movie stars, revel in ensemble cast movies, and disappear into lower budget movie characters. More than being bankable or not, being an actor or a movie star is also a state of mind. Some actors desire to become movie stars while others have no interest in that and revel in acting as a skill and form of art. The opposite is also true and some movie stars eventually become actors as they get older much like Michael Caine’s metamorphosis over several decades.
Forbes compiled a list of the top 10 most bankable actors and actresses relative to their salaries and the overall budget of each of their movies. The return on investment (ROI) shows how much a particular actor returns for each dollar he or she is paid. What is striking is that it diverges significantly from expectations of who should be on that list and doesn’t include as many people that we would refer to as bona-fide “movie stars”. The actors who offer the bigger return on investment are often the ones who are paid more modestly and tend to make lower budget movies that end up doing better than expected at the box office.
TABLE 2: FORBES’ MOST BANKABLE ACTORS AND ACTRESSES
|Actors (08/24/2009)||ROI||Actresses (10/05/2009)||ROI|
|1||Shia LaBeouf||$160:1||1||Naomi Watts||$44:1|
|2||James McAvoy||$114:1||2||Jennifer Connelly||$41:1|
|3||Michael Cera||$102:1||3||Rachel McAdams||$30:1|
|4||Daniel Radcliffe||$93:1||4||Natalie Portman||$28:1|
|5||Robert Downey Jr.||$78:1||5||Meryl Streep||$27:1|
|6||Javier Bardem||$73:1||6||Jennifer Aniston||$26:1|
|7||Ryan Reynolds||$61:1||7||Halle Berry||$23:1|
|8||Christian Bale||$55:1||8||Cate Blanchette||$23:1|
|9||Aaron Eckhart||$45:1||9||Anne Hathaway||$23:1|
|10||Dennis Quaid||$43:1||10||Hillary Swank||$23:1|
Most people do not go to Transformers to see Shia LaBeouf incredible portrayal of Sam Witwicky or flock to Juno to watch Michael Cera fantastic range. People are there to watch robots blowing each others up or to see a witty comedy. Naomi Watts and Jennifer Connelly are talented actresses but they definitely do not strike as people you would think are bankable. James McAvoy, Rachel McAdams and Natalie Portman are young thespians who tend to avoid being in the spotlight and don’t seem to be interested in movie stardom. The first real movie stars who appear on the list are Robert Downey Jr. at #5 and Jennifer Aniston at #6 (in bold). Where are the Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Johnny Depp of the world? If you think about it, it does make sense though. Shelling out $15, 20, 30+ million for the lead actor may be the single biggest expense on a movie budget and it is more and more difficult to recoup the cost as the budget increases and I think movie studios are starting to realize that they can be much more profitable without having to spend as much money on a single actor. Next, look at the Forbes’ most overpaid actors using the same method. Almost exclusively people considered movie stars:
TABLE 3: FORBES’ MOST OVERPAID HOLLYWOOD ACTORS
|Most Overpaid||Actors (11/18/2009)||ROI||Movie Star?|
|3||Billy Bob Thornton||4:1||N|
|9||Samuel L. Jackson||8.59:1||Y|
I rest my case!
So what do you think? Is the era of the movie star coming to an end? Are the higher end movie stars overpaid? Let it be known in the comments!