Peter Bart, Michael Fleming Double Take: Film Flops Negate Star Power, Franchise Potential

Movie Franchise Fizzlers After Earth R.I.P.D.

Box office, attendance are on a record pace this summer, but the cost of those films has left studios' bottom lines deep in the red

The pay is great. You get invited to all the hot parties. Celebrities covet your company (or your Rolodex).

Representing A-list movie stars is obviously a great gig — until you look at the summer box office results. Stars like Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum and Ryan Reynolds were all part of glitzy, high-profile projects this summer, all of them guaranteed to foster sequels (the pot of gold), except that none of them worked. I wouldn’t like to have been part of those post mortems.

I asked my friend, Deadline’s Mike Fleming, how he felt about all this.

FLEMING: Sure, some agents earned their combat pay this summer, but look at the other side of the coin. Liam Neeson, an actor who’s always been identified with serious drama, just signed a $20 million deal to star in “Taken 3,” a franchise that no one saw coming. At age 62, he’s become an action star; how’s that for winning the lottery?

BART: But one lesson of the summer is that franchises may not necessarily need superstars as much as they need good stories. “Harry Potter” never had a star. “Spider-man” had replaceable stars. Movies like “World War Z,” “The Lone Ranger” or “The Great Gatsby” ended up with cosmic budgets stemming from their superstar components, and all will have trouble recouping (“The Lone Ranger,” of course, may not even recoup its above-the-line).

FLEMING: The perils are out there, but at the risk of sounding like the eternal optimist, I would argue that shrewd management can improve your chances. The late Pat McQueeney read every script offered Harrison Ford and shrewdly steered her client into the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises, She transformed a shy, famously grumpy actor into superstar status.

BART: But for every Harrison Ford, how many Taylor Kitsches are out there waiting tables? The young actor looked promising in “Friday Night Lights,” but then along came some reps who decided to put him on the Harrison Ford track — a blissful life of prospective franchises.

FLEMING: So he found himself booked on the movie version of the Lusitania (“John Carter”) only to find himself next on the Hindenburg (“Battleship”). Those voyages didn’t work out too well.

BART: But it was again a classic example of Hollywood’s career-building strategy: Don’t go for roles, go for brands. It’s also a reminder of Steven Spielberg’s dire prediction at USC last month that the industry’s obsession with blockbusters could lead to a series of studio implosions.

FLEMING: The studios’ strategy to take their chances on the giant remakes and sequels stems from the fact that the international audience keeps welcoming them. On Tom Cruise’s “Oblivion,” the movie did well under $100 million in the U.S. but more than twice that much overseas. Those global bucks keep the turnstiles moving.

BART: But here’s the rub: While Hollywood has always nurtured its sequels and remakes, they constituted just part of the program, not the whole program. MGM made 16 “Andy Hardy” sequels starting in 1937 but they complemented a broad program of movies (a steady diet of Mickey Rooney would have caused cultural dyspepsia). In reaction to “The Lone Ranger,” what will Disney look like if it becomes all Marvel and Pixar, all the time?

FLEMING: The stockholders might be very happy.

BART: But audiences may start nodding off. In the present climate I take my hat off to filmmakers like Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who co-wrote and co-directed “The Way, Way Back,” a wonderful little movie (with an awful title) that contradicts every dictum about how to succeed in Hollywood, which is why no rep these days would ever advise their star to take the gig. It is totally devoid of sequel possibilities, but I am glad it got made.

FLEMING: And we’re in agreement for a change.

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  1. Dorky White Guy says:

    Peter Bart is truly one of the great sages of our industry, but I also know that prophesying demise and destruction sells copies. We need to get past the fear of the “tentpole” syndrome-circus tents only have 2 poles-this is just the new level of movie costs.

    In the 80’s I was on a film called “Tequila Sunrise” which became the first negative to exceed $20MM. The number was considered so outrageous that the completion bond company had to be called in. That figure, today, is a common salary for marquee actors.

    I doesn’t take an MBA (actually it does) to see that the major studios must play in the cost stratosphere to stay in business. High-stakes gamblers who lose big eventually win even bigger. Fixed costs of a major studio are so great that a dozen profitable releases like “The Conjuring” wouldn’t cover the air conditioning bill in the Executive bldg.

    No matter how nostalgic Messrs. Spielberg , Lucas and Bart may be, we can never go back. Vinyl records, film prints and rational costs are for old guys to argue about over a beer.

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