Movie stars didn’t shine as brightly in 2014.
It was a year in which the big draws were Captain America, Star Lord and various CGI Transformers, giant reptiles and talking apes. The people who wore the masks or shared the screen with these special effects wonders were almost incidental.
With a few exceptions, those films that depended largely on the names above the title floundered last year, raising doubts about the value of some of Hollywood’s best-compensated men and women.
If the definition of star power is opening a picture, then Johnny Depp flunked the test with “Transcendence,” Robert Downey Jr. whiffed with “The Judge,” Adam Sandler fumbled with “Blended,” George Clooney erred with “Monuments Men,” Christian Bale blundered with “Exodus: Gods & Men” and Tom Cruise missed the mark with “Edge of Tomorrow.”
Their box office disappointments sent many of the actors in question scurrying back to their franchise mainstays. Depp is on board for sequels to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Alice in Wonderland,” Downey Jr. extended his commitment to play Iron Man in additional Marvel films, and Cruise returns this year for a fifth “Mission: Impossible.” Meanwhile, Sandler is seeking new opportunities in the emerging world of digital streaming after signing a multifilm pact with Netflix.
Off-screen, A-listers didn’t fare much better. Much has been made of the Internet’s ability to seize upon and pick apart careers and celebrities after a few gaffes or missteps, and last year was no exception. A trainwreck of a New York Times interview with Jaden Smith and Willow Smith, in which the two expounded upon the virtues of home schooling and the inspirational nature of the Pacific Coast Highway, made family patriarch Will Smith look clueless and dinged his brand. After stumbling with 2013’s “After Earth,” Smith will try to reinvigorate his career with this spring’s heist comedy “Focus.” He’s also signed up for sequels to “Hancock” and “Bad Boys” and a role in the DC Comics adaptation of “Suicide Squad.”
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Likewise, Depp created more fireworks at the Hollywood Film Awards than he did in any of his cinematic offerings. The actor’s nearly incoherent introduction to the Shep Gordon documentary “Supermensch” seemed to channel Hunter S. Thompson and inspired passionate debate on social media about whether he was intoxicated. If only “Transcendence” had created half as much excitement.
“People are tired of head on the poster films, and that’s why those big actor paydays are fading,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
It’s not that household names lack importance when it comes to drawing crowds. It’s just getting more difficult to assess their contributions.
Was “X-Men: Days of Future Past” the franchise’s biggest hit because it brought Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Lawrence together? Did “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey, fail to match “Inception’s” global haul because it didn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio? Should Mark Wahlberg get credit for “Transformers: Age of Extinction” or was it all about the Autobots?
“Robert Downey Jr. in ‘Iron Man’ is pretty much a guarantee of success, but plug him into other movies, and not so much,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “That’s not the only way you measure star power. It’s more about batting average.”
These actors are both help and hindrance. It’s probably true that “The Judge” wouldn’t have made as much without Downey Jr. as it did with him, but his presence also justified a $50 million budget for a talky film with limited box office prospects.
There were certainly fresh faces who filled the screen in an impressive way last year and could be poised for enduring careers. None showed more promise than Shailene Woodley, who scored with both “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” proving her versatility and resonance with teen audiences. Despite her rising star, the filmmakers behind “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” saw no problem cutting her small role in the superhero film. There are limits to an actor’s appeal, clearly.
Some of the old guard also showed resilience. Denzel Washington continued his hot streak with “The Equalizer,” Scarlett Johansson delivered with “Lucy” and Seth Rogen scored with “Neighbors.”
Then there wasBen Affleck, who had a hit with “Gone Girl” but served primarily as a brand enhancement. A boatload of good reviews and the millions of readers who embraced the bestseller that inspired the mystery had just as much to do with its success.
Perhaps the biggest star of all was Angelina Jolie. After a four-year absence from the screen, she returned with the year’s third highest grossing film globally, “Maleficent.” The Oscar winner was front and center in the advertising campaign for the fantasy adventure, her name and face the big selling points.
“Angelina Jolie added credibility to that film and brought in a different demographic,” said Bock. “There are some stars that still make a film an event that has to be seen in theaters.”
For good measure, “Unbroken,” the survival story Jolie directed, has been a Christmas season winner, earning $87.8 million despite its bleak subject matter.
Jolie’s role in both of those pictures’ success is instructive. Her outsized public persona (Brad Pitt, the kids, her U.N. work, even her bout with chicken pox) brought buzz to projects that might not have received the same level of media attention.
But the concept of box office muscle may be more myth than reality.
“The star system has always been overrated,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “The notion that stars open movies no matter what is not true. Cinema history is littered with high-profile disappointments. They help guarantee publicity, but if people aren’t responding to the content of a film, they’re not going to show up because of an actor.”
The economic contributions of these actors is a source of lively debate in the executive suites of Hollywood. That’s evident in a leaked email exchange between Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal and the makers of “Jobs.” In notes to each other, the studio chief and the filmmakers behind the biopic about Apple founder Steve Jobs go back and forth weighing the appeal of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Christian Bale.
In the end Michael Fassbender got the part, only to see the film get tossed into turnaround before it got picked up by Universal Pictures. Yes, it seems, stardom still matters.