Tuesday 11 April 2017

Fading Stars: Why A-Listers Don't Matter

The archetypical Hollywood movie star is dead. We live in a post-movie star world where A-listers mean next to nothing in the grand scheme of what floats and what sinks.

Twenty years ago, people flocked to see a certain film based on whose name was splashed across the poster in the cinema foyer; think Arnold Schwarzenegger movies like True Lies, End of Days or Total Recall, all of which were sold with merely a name and a face. Come see this movie, the poster screamed - it has Arnie in it. At the time, that was all some people needed to know. The same could be said for stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Tom Hanks, who could all carry a movie on name and name alone.

Ryan Reynolds in Life. The movie, not the general
concept of life itself. You know what I mean.
Cut to 2017 and we’re faced with a very different situation. Who can honestly say they have the same pulling power nowadays? If box office results are anything to go by, hardly anyone does. Instead it's all about franchises and adaptations.

In the last month alone, we've seen two major blockbusters hit cinemas that aren't major properties or are adapted from nothing at all; Daniel Espinosa's space horror/thriller Life and Rupert Sanders' anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell

Both movies have struggled to generate excitement in terms of ticket sales during their limited cinema run; three weeks ago, Life debuted at fourth on the US box office chart, behind Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers and Kong: Skull Island with $12.6 million. Not too shabby, but look at what sits ahead on the list. Known properties either fronted by a marketable star or purely an existing property that has been rebaked and repackaged.

Something like Life, riding a wave of critical praise and a wall-to-wall world press tour, would have made a killing at the movies 20-25 years ago. Headlined by two hugely popular, respected and dare I say attractive male co-leads (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal), it ticks all the right boxes for success.

Globally, Life chugged past $58 million in two weeks; in its second week, it dropped to eighth and made a paltry $5.5 million in the US, squashed by more major releases like Ghost in the Shell (more on that soon) and The Boss Baby. Off an estimated budget of just over $50 million, it's not bad – but it's just not great either, when you consider the unknown figure spent on top on marketing. Choked out of cinemas by heavier hitters, it’s a high profile casualty – but not as big as some.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Now, let's talk about Ghost in the Shell. It's only been in theatres for a matter of days and sites like Polygon are already called it on of the biggest flops of the year

And admittedly, the signs don't look good. In its opening week, Ghost in the Shell made just $19 million in the US; that's less than Beauty and the Beast and The Boss Baby and only slightly more than Power Rangers and Kong: Skull Island, which, with the exception of The Boss Baby, have all been playing across the world for multiple weeks.

Against a reported budget of $110 million, that's not a good start. It's barely enough to cover ScarJo's paycheck. Worldwide, that number conflates to $59 million and should climb even further when the movie opens in China and Japan, but domestically things have gotten off to rocky start to say the least.

That’s a lot of numbers and on the surface it might seem like these two examples are just isolated instances pulled from a couple of fairly hefty months at the movies. But they’re not – it’s an emerging trend that has seen a lot of major studio releases simply squashed even if they have a major A-lister among their ranks.

In the last 12 months, movies like Assassin's Creed, Passengers, The Great Wall, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allied, Live by Night and The Accountant all failed to illicit more than a shrug at the box office despite each being headlined by a major, supposedly bankable A-list actors like Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck respectively, with Affleck accounting (pun intended) for the last two on that extensive list of flunks.

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Michael Fassbender in Live by Night, The Great Wall and Assassin's Creed respectively

Like everything on this list, Ghost in the Shell had its hopes and dreams pinned to a major star (in this case, ScarJo) as its headline actress. Sure, one could argue that the original anime is in itself a known property with an built-in audience, but I would wager Mr Average Joe on the street isn't readily acquainted with relatively niche Japanese anime. 

It therefore follows that the studio and those working on the film are banking on one thing - audiences showing up because they want to see ScarJo kick butt as an emotionless cyborg.

Except, they didn't. Much like the extensive list of examples listed above, Ghost in the Shell sank when traditional (read: outdated) understanding of trends would indicate it should float. 

Of course, some of this might be down to the fact that Ghost in the Shell has been plagued by heated debate surrounding ScarJo's casting since day one, but again, I'd wager the issue doesn't permeate as deeply with everyday water cooler discourse as Twitter would lead you to believe; does the average moviegoer know or care enough to boycott a film that, all things considered, looked like your average kickass cyberpunk action movie?

What we're seeing more and more nowadays is a lack of interest in the movie star. Scarlett Johannson or Matt Damon or Johnny Depp aren't enough to sell a movie just by themselves any more. You need to start with an existing idea and then introduce a name actor to the equation to build hype.

Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Beauty and the Beast
Look at it this way; did people turn out in droves to see Beauty and the Beast because of Emma Watson or because they love the original? The box office receipts for Noah and The Bling Ring a few years ago would argue the former. Is Ryan Reynolds the reason that Deadpool went gangbusters or was it an odd synergy of actor and character coming together? Other recent flicks starring Reynolds suggest the former; Life hasn't taken flight and literally no-one remembers Mississippi Grind, Self/Less and Criminal.

Similarly, did audiences flock to see Logan because it stars Wolverine or Hugh Jackman? Again, the collective monetary response to Eddie the Eagle, Pan and Chappie would suggest the former is more likely. People want to see Jackman as Wolverine; they want to see Reynolds as Deadpool. It's very telling that 90s A-lister Will Smith has moved into and/or reprised existing properties like Suicide Squad or Men in Black after struggling to get dreck like After Earth off the ground. Even the loveliest man in the world, Tom Hanks, struggles sometimes; essentially no-one turned up to see Ron Howard's Inferno last year.

You could make the same argument for the moviest movie star of them all, Tom Cruise. Films with Cruise in the lead role only hit big when they're an existing property like Mission Impossible, and in the case of the tepid Jack Reacher series, sometimes even that isn't enough. 

His recent one-off action/adventure/sci-fi larks like Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion and Knight and Day all failed to engage with a wide audience, even when the critical response was overwhelmingly favourable (Edge of Tomorrow). It's no surprise that Cruise is sticking firmly to known quantities for the foreseeable future; Mission Impossible 6 is chugging along with an arrival date on 2018, The Mummy opens this summer and sequel to Top Gun isn't too far away.

The highest paid actor right now, Robert Downey Jnr, faces the same problem. Audiences will only to pay to see a movie where he plays Tony Stark; the most recent film he tried to headline (2014's The Judge) fell flat and he doesn't have anything else that isn't Marvel on his plate until 2019. 

Every Marvel film that stars Tony Stark routinely pulls in over a billion dollars - but it's not Downey Jnr, but a combination of both actor and character, that audiences are eager to see, as evidenced by their disinterest in anything else the actor has turned his attention to since 2011's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and 2008's Tropic Thunder before that.

Scarlett Johannson was the highest grossing actor of 2016; so why is it that when she tries to headline a movie like Ghost in the Shell, the collective response is a half-hearted shrug?

Of course, there is always going to be the odd outlier that defies all logic; the best recent example would be Jordan Peele's smash hit horror Get Out, which is both an original idea he wrote and directed himself and stars zero A-list actors. 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and $140 million at the US box office are practically unprecedented and quite literally record-breaking.

But for every success story, there is another five or six that reveal the harsher truth - hiring a big star to spearhead your potential blockbuster doesn't count for much unless they're playing something or someone pre-existing. Ghost in the Shell and Life aren't the first and it won't be the last - but right now they're the two major casualties tumbling down the order in a box office landscape increasingly uninterested in original ideas starring attractive people.

This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.


  1. This is a great article and you're absolutely right on it. I hope studios take this into account and cast differently in the future and not just because someone will "sell" their movie.

    1. Thanks Brittani! :) It would have been cool to see the studio go out on a limb, particularly with Ghost in the Shell. Clearly ScarJo's star power wasn't enough to counteract the casting controversy.

  2. Nice read, Rhys, been saying this for a while. The only 2 actors who remain legit box office draws are Kevin Hart and Tyler Perry. ;)

    1. Kevin Hart, I can see - Ride Along and Central Intelligence and all that. Tyler Perry is definitely a US thing, I don't think a lot of people would know who he is here haha.

  3. This is a really interesting read Rhys! I hope this means we'll start to see more breakout stars in these big releases, rather than an increase in sequels and reboots :)

    1. Thanks Allie! It would be great to see some films be a bit more daring with their choices, particularly if there is already an inbuilt audience with an existing property.

  4. Interesting article, Rhys! I'd definitely agree. Hollywood suffers with re-casting big stars into franchises as much as they do finding newer talent who are interesting enough to carry something on their own other than a franchise. I have my favorite stars to see everything in, but there's a lot of actors I'm just not racing to see. A lot of it depends on the story and direction too.



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