Big stars, litle pictures

Top thesps in art movies can pose tricky balancing act

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made a great dance team because he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. Big stars similarly enjoy partnering with little films: The stars give clout, the pics give class. But why is this pairing having such a hard time getting in step?

  • Tom Hanks, arguably the biggest star in the world, wasn’t enough to draw a wider spectrum of filmgoers to “The Ladykillers.” Budgeted at $70 million, the Coen Bros. pic has grossed just over $35 million after four weeks in release.

  • Despite the presence of Julia Roberts, Steven Soderbergh’s “Full Frontal” chalked up a global take of $3.5 million.

  • Kate Hudson, who drove “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days” to $100 million, saw “Le Divorce” and “Alex & Emma” limp into double digits at the B.O.

Of course, success or failure can be a matter of perspective. While “Ladykillers” may be a downtick on Hanks’ box-office record, it gave the Coens the biggest opening weekend of their career.

And there are other considerations: Though a film may not be a boxoffice winner, it might provide an artistic stretch for the actor and a boon in the long run.

When the movie is actually released, however, star power also has the potential to become a double-edged sword.

First, there’s the audience’s expectations. When a star takes on a role that runs counter to what his or her fans want, the results can be as if the actor wasn’t there at all.

When stars choose smaller films, there’s always a reason. Sometimes it’s a passion project, as it was for Colin Farrell in IFC Films’ “Intermission” or John Travolta in Screen Gems’ upcoming “A Love Song For Bobby Long.”

Often, it’s in hopes of creating Oscar bait or finding a career-changing role, as with Halle Berry and “Monster’s Ball.”

Upcoming small-big pics include Jude Law and Naomi Watts in Fox Searchlight’s “I Heart Huckabee’s” and Reese Witherspoon in Focus Features’ “Vanity Fair.”

Sandra Bullock’s next three pics, “Prime,” “Crash” and Neil LaBute’s “Vapor,” all share stark titles, independent financing and starring roles that have little in common with the klutzy-but-winsome characters on which she built her career.

In addition, there are stars who habitually enjoy bouncing between the two worlds: Nicole Kidman (Fine Line Features’ “Birth” and Lions Gate’s “Dogville” vs. “Cold Mountain” and “The Stepford Wives”), Jack Nicholson (“The Pledge” vs. “Something’s Gotta Give”) and Johnny Depp (“Blow” vs. “Pirates of the Caribbean”).

Focus Features’ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is another case study. Compared to the boxoffice of Jim Carrey’s previous pic — $242 million domestically for Universal’s “Bruce Almighty” –the gross of $30 million in one month is far from almighty.

But the pic has been a critical fave, with some touting its awards potential, and “Eternal Sunshine” could earn as much as $100 million worldwide.

So does one judge it as a Carrey film or as a Michel Gondry-Charlie Kaufman film?

Those close to the project allow that its performance has been driven by strong reviews rather than Carrey fans driven to see his most recent outing. Although the film performed well in arthouses, it failed to draw in the suburban areas where Carrey’s fans are usually swift to flock.

“Distributing a movie with Jim Carrey is no different from the way you would approach distributing a picture with (“21 Grams” director Alejandro Gonzalez) Inarritu or (“Eternal Sunshine” helmer Michel) Gondry,” says Focus Features co-president David Linde. “Certainly Carrey is the most identifiable element of the movie. We spent a lot of time with his people, making him comfortable, and making (screenwriter) Charlie Kaufman comfortable, too.”

And that’s another challenge for little movie with a big star: Managing the expectations of the distributor against those of the celeb.

On one hand, the studio wants to sell the picture and the star wants his picture to sell. On the other hand, neither the studio nor the star wants to make audiences think they’re going to get the wacky antics of Ace Ventura when they’re really going to see the lovelorn inner life of Joel Barish.

That balancing act can tumble: Witness the marketing for “Le Divorce,” which pointed to a frothy romantic comedy rather than a melodrama with violent undertones. It also can alienate a star’s audience, which in turn would alienate the star from the studio.

Finally, if anything goes wrong, the star will often blame the studio for dropping the ball.

“It’s a high-wire act,” says producer Steve Golin, a veteran of movies such as “Eternal Sunshine,” “Bounce,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Nurse Betty.”

Sometimes the magic works. Witness Charlize Theron and “Monster.” The shapely blonde’s career was conscribed to window dressing before she took on an extra 30 lbs. and an overbite to portray lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuronos. She won an Oscar and the low-budget film has grossed $34 million.

But for some, the results are less than magical. Last year, Meg Ryan was vocal about shaking her daffy comedienne persona. With “Against the Ropes,” Ryan portrayed real-life boxing promoter Jackie Kallen; for “In The Cut,” she was a writing professor who has a twisted and erotic affair with a New York police detective who may or may not be trying to kill her. Neither critics nor audiences appreciated the stretch.

“A big star can be insurance in a lot of cases, but it’s not a guarantee,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “To me, it has to do with the entire package as a movie. If you have a star and lousy script, you have a lousy movie. If you have no names, a great script and strong marketing, you’ve got a good shot.”

That’s a gamble that many films never have to make. In today’s market, an edgy movie that doesn’t have a star attached is a movie that simply won’t get made.

“The financing for all of these movies is driven by a key piece of talent,” says Randall Emmett, who is producing the $26 million cop drama “Edison” with Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Justin Timberlake. “Morgan and Kevin were the catalysts for the financing.”

In addition to “Prime” and “Crash,” Syndicate is betting on Matthew McConaughey for “Tishomingo Blues,” Pierce Brosnan for “The Matador,” John Travolta for “A Love Song For Bobby Long,” Bruce Willis for “Hostage” and Orlando Bloom for “Haven.”

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