Will Superstars Become Summer Box Office Superheroes?

As the price of tentpoles rises, so do the quotes of the actors who topline them

Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey

The box office action this summer will be triggered more by superstars than superheroes, contrary to recent history. And the studios have created and endured some messy budgetary headaches and production melodramas to make that happen.

Will they have a profitable run?

Consider the lineup: Leonardo Di Caprio’s star turn as “The Great Gatsby” prompted a $150 million outlay (pre rebates), while the 1974 “Gatsby” with Robert Redford cost $6.5 million. Johnny Depp’s version of “The Lone Ranger” set Disney back nearly $300 million and its overseas potential worries the studio marketers. Brad Pitt’s delayed and re-cut “World War Z” propelled Paramount to a nearly $200 million zombie spend. Then of course there’s Will Smith in “After Earth” — a risky offering costing more than $100 million, and Robert Downey Jr.’s latest “Iron Man” sequel, whose $1 billion worldwide haul will give the actor stratospheric leverage in negotiating the next installment in the franchise with Marvel parent Disney.

More relevant than cost, the marketing and production traumas ignited by these megapics have arguably sucked the energy out of the big studios, discouraging prospects for inventive counterprogramming. Executives are hesitant to invest in alternative product when they’re trying to devise a third act for a pricey zombie movie.

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Wall Street gurus argue relentlessly that the major studios are on firmer ground when they focus on megabudget tentpoles and superstar sequels, but do the budgets represent appetite rather than reality? And what will be the ultimate consequences on the Hollywood economy?

Studio number-crunchers already are shuddering over the prospective budgets of franchise sequels. Would Downey Jr.’s reps even vaguely contemplate a future vehicle without a guaranteed $50 million-plus payday? I don’t know Tom Cruise’s deal on “Mission Impossible V,” but I would imagine it surpasses his take for “Mission II” which drew the wrath of Sumner Redstone and got Cruise excommunicated from the Paramount lot. Yet Cruise’s valiant effort in “Oblivion” is struggling to recoup its costs, underscoring the question: Do superstars need established franchises to validate their value?

That’s why a comparison between the 1974 “Gatsby” and the 2013 “Gatsby” merits further analysis. Both films utilized cameras and actors and soundstages. Both had top-line casts (arguably the Redford-Mia Farrow cast had even more heat). The director of the first film, Jack Clayton, went over budget as did Baz Luhrmann on the current version. So how could the earlier movie come in at one-twentieth the cost?

It’s possible to summon up all sorts of reasons, ranging from 3D to music to special effects to star salaries to union benefits, but the basic reason is this: In the early ’70s there simply wasn’t that much money around to make movies. Filmmakers understood the realities of the marketplace and made the necessary accommodations. The only franchises around were in baseball, and tentpoles were simply devices used at carnivals.

Today’s Hollywood has defined a new reality, and the superstars, who were briefly running into head winds, are enjoying the ride. Why shouldn’t they?

It’s just that there’s a lot of debris left along the way — including dramas and comedies that are neither franchises nor tentpoles and aren’t even about hangovers.