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Friday Flix: When the Stars All Go Out

September 9, 2011

Since it launched a few months ago, I’ve only read one article from Bill Simmons’s “Grantland” website.  Mostly because summer is a boring time in sports and I don’t give a crap about the Red Sox.  But one article did interest me, about how there’s only one real “movie star” left in Hollywood.  Any guess who it is?  I’ll let you think and give you some spoiler space.

Think about it…

Think about it…

Think…

Think…

Think…

Think…

Got a guess?

Ready?

OK, I think that’s about enough.

The answer is:  Will Smith.  This isn’t just Simmons’s theory either.  It’s actually based on research of box office numbers and so forth.  Will Smith is really the only one left who has a consistent track record of success.

Since Simmons steals most of his ideas from me and Mr. Pagel, it’s no surprise that I wrote about that on Gather about a year earlier, after the failure of Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz’s “Knight and Day” and Angelina Jolie’s “Salt.”  More to the point was that we don’t really have any movie stars left.  Every summer anymore you look at the schedule and it’s not movies driven by stars; it’s movies driven by properties:  Transformers, Batman, Iron Man, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.

No disrespect to Daniel Radcliffe or Robert Pattinson (OK, some disrespect to the latter) but you could put anyone in those roles and be successful.  At least anyone who looks somewhat hawt and can act slightly better than Paris Hilton.  The actors are pretty much interchangeable, though they might not think so.  You didn’t go BECAUSE it was a Daniel Radcliffe movie; you went because it was a Harry Potter movie.  And you didn’t go to Transformers 3 because Shia LaBeouf was in it; you went because giant robots were pounding each other to smithereens!  (Or if you’re me you didn’t go at all.)

Movies like “Knight and Day” or “Larry Crowne” that try to rely on “star power” anymore wind up fizzling.  Why?  Because no one gives a crap about Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or George Clooney anymore.  At least not on the movie screen.  We might tune into TMZ or look them up on Perez Hilton’s website or read about them in OK Magazine, but when it comes to some generic spy movie or comedy, we don’t really give a crap that they’re in it.

The majority of “stars” out there right now are really celebrities and not “movie stars.”  Simmons talks a lot about Ryan Reynolds not being a movie star and he’s right.  Few are going to say, “Hey, let’s go see that new Ryan Reynolds movie!”  He doesn’t have that kind of clout.  Maybe you’ll go buy a People or US Weekly with Reynolds on the cover to check out some nice cheesecake shots, but when it comes to parting with $10-$15 anymore, it seems people are focused more on the WHAT than the WHO.  Which is why “Green Lantern” underperformed and “The Change-Up” was a dud.

Bringing it back to the beginning, why is Will Smith the only movie star left?  According to Simmons’s article, it’s because Smith cracked the code to box office success.  Back when he was doing “Fresh Prince” and looking to make a break into movies, he and his agent sat down and figured out box office trends.  They figured out that what we really like are sci-fi action movies with creatures and a little romance.  So he did “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” and the rest is history.  Since then he’s ridden the wave to consistent success.  (Even movies like “Wild Wild West” that weren’t very good still performed well financially.)

Simmons goes on to say that once he became a star, Smith didn’t really take any chances and that’s helped to keep him popular.  And overall I’d have to agree.  None of his movies have really been controversial; they’ve all been pretty much safe choices.  I haven’t liked any of them since 1997, but that doesn’t matter; the rest of America (and the world) likes them enough to keep forking over their dough.

Again no disrespect, but Will Smith isn’t the most talented actor out there either.  That doesn’t matter, though.  What matters are the numbers and that’s where he comes up big.  Contrast that to Nicole Kidman, who everyone says is a good actress and has been nominated for a few Oscars, but when you look at the numbers her movies are consistent flops.  Her last moneymaker was back in 1995 with “Batman Forever” where she was the least important character.

There are other actors who are good at what they do, but are you going to watch a movie just because they’re in it?  I mean would you ever say, “Hey, let’s go watch that new Paul Giamatti movie!”  Probably not.  This is a far cry from the 30s, 40s, and 50s when you had huge stars like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, on and on and on.

What changed?  I’ll make Mr. Pagel’s day and say:  Star Wars.  Star Wars was a huge hit with no big stars.  Harrison Ford was somewhat known and Alec Guinness was near the end of his career but that was it.  Star Wars proved you didn’t need stars; you just need effects and a fun story.  More and more as effects became better, the big movies rely less and less on stars to succeed.

While this is true for movies, it seems star power still matters in the book industry.  In large part it’s because the industry itself creates favorable conditions for that because the already famous authors—the Stephen Kings or Dean Koontzes or John Grishams—are the ones they promote.  The others are left to pretty much fend for themselves.  Plus of course the industry loves giving absurd advances to “stars” and criminals for their tell-all books.  So when it comes to books, the Name Game is still alive and well, though I think as the Kings, Koontzes, etc. die off (maybe not literally, but just stop putting out books) the trend will more and more become like the movie industry, where the WHAT of the book will matter more than WHO wrote it.

But if you can, do what Will Smith did and crack the code for success.  Give the people what they want and they’ll love you for it.

Tune in Monday to learn how everything you know about Blogging is WRONG!!!

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7 Comments
  1. I see what you’re saying here. But I can’t wait for Monday when I find out that everything I know about blogging is WRONG!

    (…I don’t consider I know that much, actually. What will that mean for me? I cannot wait to find out.)

  2. Another thing that we have going today for movies is the proliferation of information available regarding the stars. A lot of them do such stupid crap that it becomes a real turnoff for some people. Couple that with reviews (which many people read) and what was once mysterious becomes quite mundane.

    In the golden age of Hollywood, stars and their lives were so tightly controlled that they were put on pedestals…thought of as being demigods…and this kind of worship was to the benefit of the studios who had a bankable commodity in controlling the glamour and glitz associated with a name. We had Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Marilyn Monroe.

    With the rise of reality television, all glamour is gone. We see stars like Sn00ki behaving like trash and everyone thinks “they are just like us.” So on the one hand, we have people getting “entitlement” as everyone thinks that they should now live like the stars (after all they live like us)…and they are conversely no longer movie stars because public opinion agrees that they are not like us. However, the bottom line is that they still make millions of dollars. So who cares if there are no more movie stars when all that counts is money?

    Will Smith’s career has been defined by good choices. But he also keeps an air of mystery to him. And until recently, I never heard of him in the news. The whole Jada Pinkett thing though may just be his downfall from movie star status to being another reality t.v. junkie with a dysfunctional family on the Jerry Springer show.

    Speaking for myself…I mostly don’t follow trends in movies. I look at two things…1) Does the movie have an interesting story or 2) who is the director? I have to say that I have seen every single Steven Spielberg movie ever made. The best is obviously Schindler’s List but I prefer watching practically anything else to that morbid piece of work. One does not sit around with friends and family and say, “Hey…I got a great idea…let’s all watch Schindler’s List!”

    Another thing too that has kind of done in the movie star thing is the whole model turned actor/actress thing. We have shifted to a place where only beautiful people are put into movies and television. I’m sorry but this has led to a real decrease in talent. Looking good does not mean one is a good actor/actress. Angelina Jolie will never be a Meryl Streep. She just won’t. And Meryl Streep is one of those actresses to whom I really enjoy watching.

    And plus the actresses and actors that seem super good at their craft oftentimes get out of acting and become directors/producers. One such person I can think of is Jodie Foster. I loved her as an actress but she doesn’t act anymore. She is behind the scenes. I think in the golden age of Hollywood…this kind of transition to behind-the-camera was unheard of (not sure about that).

    I just wanted to add one more thing. I think that Leonardo di Caprio is a movie star. I think that he has managed to capture the glamour and glitz associated with this in a “golden age” way and I think his name alone can carry most movies. I’ve seen practically every movie that he’s been in (most of them Martin Scorcese– I see all Scorcese movies so am I watching the director or the actor?) Hell if I know. But I’m just throwing that out there for you to consider.

    • DiCaprio’s been doing better recently by making good choices on scripts “Inception,” “Shutter Island,” and “The Departed.” But he also did “Revolutionary Road” which I don’t think did very well, “The Beach” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” following “Titanic.” Not sure how “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Aviator” did commercially. Anyway, by the standard of consistent box office success, I think that’s why Simmons didn’t include him.

      Jodie Foster like a lot of women is probably finding good parts hard to find, which is why it makes sense for her to work on directing and producing instead.

      And really Hollywood’s never had any ugly people (even the supposedly ugly people in movies are never as ugly as people you see on the street) but Michael Bay certainly proved that talent doesn’t matter when he replaced Megan Fox (who was no Meryl Streep to start with) with an underwear model and the movie still made shitloads of money because idiots like my brother still went to see computer-generated robots fight each other.

    • And you might be right that the separation/divorce thing might finally bring down Will Smith–and his progeny. Especially if it turns out he did some cheating like Tiger Woods.

  3. Hiroko permalink

    It’s sad that both you and Simmons are very right. As far as the books go, anyway. It’s human nature to usually “go with what you know,” but the fact that what is known highly overshadows all the new blood in the industry can be discouraging.

  4. Lisa Potts permalink

    Interesting post, RM. I think it relates to something a coworker and I were talking about the other day. We were discussing movies our kids enjoyed like Seventeen Again and Thirteen Going On Thirty. You know the ones that were just modernized rip-offs of Big starring Tom Hanks.

    So I popped Big into the DVD and had them sit down to watch with me. Within fifteen minutes she was texting and he was playing a game on his IPod claiming the movie was boring.

    Movies made now are geared toward their multi-tasking generation. If there aren’t explosions and car chases every five minutes, it doesn’t hold their attention. I think that predicts a rather sad cinematic future for the rest of us.

    Now I’m off to comment on your previous post to try and get my numbers up closer to Michael’s.

  5. I have this theory that blockbusters used to rely on stars because fx sucked. Once semi-believable fx were possible for fantastic stories the stars weren’t as important.

    I’m not sure ‘theory’ is the right word. A conjecture I guess.

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