It has been a brutal few months for Hollywood’s A-list. Sandra Bullock couldn’t close the deal for “Our Brand is Crisis.” Michael Fassbender failed to draw a crowd to “Steve Jobs.” Even Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, whose relationship has been a boon to tabloids the world over, weren’t able to generate box office sizzle playing a married couple in “By the Sea.”
But the movie business isn’t ready to wave the white flag on star power just yet. In the coming weeks, the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Will Smith will try to prove that having their name above the title is worth its weight in ticket sales. Considered to be among the most reliable draws on the big screen, these actors are putting their muscle behind challenging projects such as “The Revenant,” “Joy” and “Concussion,” hoping that their charisma can siphon off moviegoers whose attention may be consumed by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
There’s more at stake than just the size of their trailer and other lavish perks. The fate of a rewards system that has enabled radical and compelling works of art to make it to the big screen hangs in the balance. These movies would not have been made had these actors not come aboard, often shaving their salaries in the process. They are a testament to the performers’ clout in an age where star power has never shined less brightly.
But analysts say that sending Leo out on the morning show circuit or having J. Law hit the late-night couches won’t be enough to guarantee a strong opening. At a time where word-of-mouth spreads with the speed of 140 characters, all of the elements of a picture have to harmonize beautifully so reputation can build across social media networks.
“Selling a movie on a star’s name alone is not working,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Everything has to come together. You have to be immaculately reviewed and really deliver the goods.”
Fifteen years ago, stars like Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks were able to dominate the Christmas box office with adult-skewing dramas such as “Traffic” and “Castaway.” In the ensuing decade and a half, things have changed. Both men have grown older, aging out of the top tier of bankability, and a younger generation of actors hasn’t emerged to take their place. Part of the reason for the star shortfall is that the most popular films today tend to be superhero movies or action spectacles where the marketable and memorable elements involve special effects, not reaction shots.
Now, more than ever, matching an actor to the right project is critical. At one point, actors like Harrison Ford were able to use a few signature roles such as Indiana Jones or Han Solo to get passion projects made and deliver the goods for studios while stretching their acting muscles. That’s changed. Even having a franchise or two doesn’t guarantee success outside of a signature role. Chris Hemsworth means big box office when he’s playing the God of Thunder, but take his hammer away, and the “Thor” star suffers a flop like “Blackhat.” There’s a reason that marketing materials for his upcoming whaling drama, “In the Heart of the Sea,” focus more on the beast than the man hunting it. Hemsworth hasn’t proved he can open a movie.
“Star power is only as strong as the movie you’re in,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “Having a big star is the cherry on the cake, but the cake has to be compelling too.”
They don’t make them like they used to and there’s a pretty good financial reason why. Pictures like “The Revenant,” a bloody revenge saga that subjects audiences to a bear mauling, a castration, and a gag-inducing sequence in which DiCaprio disembowels a dead horse before using the corpse as the frontier equivalent of a sleeping bag, don’t make for easy sells. It’s a stunning work of art, that will be a favorite with cinephiles, but that may not be enough. With a price tag of $135 million, the film doesn’t have to just be a modest performer. In order to make a profit, it has to be one of the year’s biggest hits.
“The Revenant” is only matched in the gore department by “The Hateful Eight,” a blood-splattered Western that lacks a DiCaprio, but boasts one of the few directors in Quentin Tarantino that is legitimately a household name. With its clever dialogue and gun fights, many analysts think that “The Hateful Eight” has strong commercial prospects, even as they acknowledge that Tarantino’s fondness for a certain racial epithet could lead to blowback as it did with “Django Unchained.”
“Quentin is a box office draw,” said Bock. “This is a classic slice of Tarantino, and if it can pick up awards steam, it’s going to be a success.”
Adding to the pressure, the film’s producer, the Weinstein Company has had to cut staff and overhead in recent months. It sunk $62 million into the picture and is banking on “The Hateful Eight” to reverse its fortunes.
While films like “Concussion,” “Joy” and “The Big Short,” a look at the recent financial crisis that boasts an ensemble that includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Pitt, carry more modest budgets, they are talky and character driven at a time when audiences prefer visual bombast to snappy dialogue.
Not content to just be a slow-burn drama, “Concussion” goes one step further, by taking on America’s favorite pastime and accusing football of behaving like big tobacco and masking the health risks that the game presents to players. At a recent screening, no less an authority than “Friday Night Lights” creator Peter Berg told Smith that the film left him wanting to push his son to abandon football for lacrosse. So that’ll go over well in Odessa.
“Joy” does offer up a meaty role for Lawrence, but it also demands that audiences come along for the ride as a QVC-made millionaire is given the kind of multi-decade biopic treatment typically reserved for heads of state or pop culture icons.
And “The Big Short” doesn’t just traffic in a head-hurting litany of financial terms such as collaterized debt obligations, it asks audiences to root for a group of arrogant investors who bet against the markets and profited from the housing and credit bubble. Not exactly a collection of Capra-esque underdogs.
Faced with the daunting challenge of selling complicated plots and unlikable characters to the moviegoing public most of these studios are relying on the bond the public had with their movie stars. Posters for “Joy” focus on Lawrence looking heavenward as snowflakes fall around her. Art for “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Concussion” are classic head shots, that harken back to an era when an actor was a film’s best asset. And “The Hateful Eight” boasts Tarantino’s name in big, bold lettering.
The question is, will audiences still buy what they’re selling?