Matching the right actor with the perfect project is a tricky (but tested) formula for box office success.
Take “The Interview.” The upcoming story of two newsmen tapped to assassinate a ruthless military dictator didn’t really move the needle with moviegoers until they found out that the film starred James Franco and Seth Rogen, a comic duo who previously headlined “Pineapple Express” and “This Is The End.”
That’s the takeaway from Piedmont Media Research, after the consumer testing firm polled 1,500 people about “The Interview” and other upcoming fall releases in order to gauge how an actor’s presence in a particular film impacts audiences’ enthusiasm. The people surveyed were selected to be demographically representative of the movie-going public in terms of age, gender, ticket-buying behavior and ethnicity. The results indicate that while star power may not shine as brightly as it did in Hollywood’s golden age, the name above the title still matters.
“We wanted to see how people respond to certain actors and how much value they add to projects,” said Joshua Lynn, president of Piedmont Media Research, which counts a number of studios and production companies as clients.
Nowhere was that value more evident than with “The Interview,” which saw its consumer engagement score rise 53.7% after survey participants found out the film would offer up a Franco and Rogen reunion. Also enjoying a boost were “Birdman” with Michael Keaton (consumer engagement hike of 43.3%), “The Equalizer” with Denzel Washington (+32.9%), “Fury” with Brad Pitt (+27.9%), “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon (+9.3%) and “The Judge” with Robert Downey Jr. (+28.6%).
And evidence of the McConaissance was on full display. Matching newly minted Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey with “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan for “Interstellar” saw consumer engagement scores for the space adventure soar 24.1%.
There’s one value-added MVP among the actors headlining fall movies. With hits like “Training Day” and “Safe House” on his resume, Washington has been a reliable force in film for years and his enduring appeal is evident in Piedmont’s research. His last four movies have increased in score anywhere from 32% to 39% when Piedmont attached his name to a concept.
“Denzel Washington starring in a period romance set in 1600 might score differently,” said Lynn. “I’m not sure if he’s just picking the right projects, but he’s consistently the highest value added of any actor.”
Other stars are not as lucky. Ryan Reynolds, who has suffered a string of box office misses such as “R.I.P.D.” and “Green Lantern” of late, saw scores drop when his name was matched with a concept for two of his last three projects. The same is true for a handful of upcoming films such as “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” which saw numbers remain essentially flat, dipping 0.76% when Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner’s names were brought up in conjunction with the family film.
“Dracula Undead” and “Annabelle” fared worse. The horror films saw their scores fall 9.51% and 8.24%, respectively, when concepts were linked with stars. It may not be a knock on the popularity of “Dracula Undead” star Luke Evans or “Annabelle” actors Annabelle Wallis or Ward Horton. Moviegoers may just be unfamiliar with them or not like the idea of seeing these performers in this kind of a film.
“If you’re a studio you could actually model how much money an actor is going to bring to a project,” said Lynn. “You can make smarter decisions.”