The archetypical Hollywood movie star is dead. We live in a post-movie star world where A-listers mean next to nothing in the grand scheme of what floats and what sinks.
Twenty years ago, people flocked to see a certain film based on whose name was splashed across the poster in the cinema foyer. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger movies like True Lies, End of Days or Total Recall, all of which were sold with merely a name and a face. Come see this movie, the poster screamed – it has Arnie in it. At the time, that was all some people needed to know. The same could be said for stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Tom Hanks, who could all carry a movie on name and name alone.
Cut to 2017 and we’re faced with a very different situation. Who can honestly say they have the same pulling power nowadays? If box office results are anything to go by, hardly anyone does. Instead it’s all about franchises and adaptations.
In the last month alone, we’ve seen two major blockbusters hit cinemas that aren’t major properties; Daniel Espinosa‘s space horror/thriller Life and Rupert Sanders‘ anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell. Both movies have struggled to generate excitement in terms of ticket sales during their limited cinema run; three weeks ago, Life debuted at fourth on the US box office chart, behind Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers and Kong: Skull Island. Not too shabby, but look at what sits ahead on the list; known properties that have been rebaked and repackaged.
Something like Life, riding a wave of critical praise and a wall-to-wall world press tour, would have made a killing at the movies 20-25 years ago. Headlined by two hugely popular, respected and dare I say attractive male co-leads (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal), it ticks all the right boxes for success.
Now, let’s talk about Ghost in the Shell. It’s only been in theatres for a matter of days and sites like Polygon are already calling it one of the biggest flops of the year. And admittedly, the signs don’t look good. In its opening week, Ghost in the Shell made just $19 million in the US. Against a reported budget of $110 million, that’s not a good start. It’s barely enough to cover ScarJo’s paycheck.
It might seem like these two examples are just isolated instances pulled from a couple of fairly hefty months at the movies. But they’re not – it’s an emerging trend that has seen a lot of major studio releases simply squashed even if they have a major A-lister among their ranks.
In the last 12 months, movies like Passengers, The Great Wall, Live by Night and The Accountant all failed to illicit more than a shrug at the box office despite each being headlined by major actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Like this list, Ghost in the Shell had its hopes and dreams pinned to a major star (in this case, ScarJo) as its headline actress. Sure, one could argue that the original anime is in itself a known property with an built-in audience, but I would wager Mr Average Joe on the street isn’t readily acquainted with relatively niche Japanese anime. It therefore follows that the studio and those working on the film are banking on one thing – audiences showing up because they want to see ScarJo kick butt as an emotionless cyborg.
What we’re seeing more and more nowadays is a lack of interest in the movie star. Scarlett Johannson or Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal aren’t enough to sell a movie just by themselves any more. You need to start with an existing idea and then introduce a name actor to the equation to build hype.
Look at it this way; did people turn out in droves to see Beauty and the Beast because of Emma Watson or because they love the original? The box office receipts for Noah and The Bling Ring a few years ago would argue the latter. Is Ryan Reynolds the reason that Deadpool went gangbusters or was it an odd synergy of actor and character coming together? Other recent flicks starring Reynolds suggest the latter; literally no-one remembers Mississippi Grind, Self/Less and Criminal.
Similarly, did audiences flock to see Logan because it stars Wolverine or Hugh Jackman? People want to see Jackman as Wolverine; they want to see Reynolds as Deadpool. The highest paid actor right now, Robert Downey Jnr, faces the same problem. Audiences will only to pay to see a movie where he plays Tony Stark; the most recent film he tried to headline (2014’s The Judge) fell flat and he doesn’t have anything else that isn’t Marvel on his plate until 2019.
Of course, there is always going to be the odd outlier that defies all logic; the best recent example would be Jordan Peele‘s smash hit horror Get Out, which is due to hit Australian cinemas next month. It’s an original idea that Peele wrote and directed himself and stars zero A-list actors. 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and $140 million at the US box office are practically unprecedented and quite literally record-breaking.
But for every success story, there is another five or six that reveal the harsher truth – hiring a big star to spearhead your potential blockbuster doesn’t count for much unless they’re playing something or someone pre-existing. Ghost in the Shell and Life aren’t the first, and won’t be the last – but right now they’re the two major casualties tumbling down the order in a box office landscape increasingly uninterested in original ideas starring attractive people.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures