The last action heroes
It seems there may be no successors to cinema’s biggest male stars, as Hollywood increasingly views them as risky for business
INDEPENDENCE Day director Roland Emmerich sent shockwaves through Hollywood when he declared that the film’s star, Will Smith, was “too expensive and too much of a marquee name” to star in the sequel, scheduled to come out in 2015. Emmerich had previously declared that it would be impossible to do a sequel without Smith.
The about- turn, announced while Emmerich was promoting his new film, White House Down, is part of a changing of the guard in Hollywood that has seen Smith, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt lose some of their cachet.
The announcement also comes just as Hollywood has seemingly deemed it no longer needs its three biggest male stars to launch blockbuster movies.
The knives had been sharpened for Pitt when zombie thriller World War Z was being designated a megaflop even before it hit cinemas.
With a budget rumoured to be in excess of $400m (R4 billion), including marketing, it was being touted as this year’s John Carter. When the sci-fi adventure bombed last season, Disney boss Rich Ross resigned from his post and the film reputedly lost $200m.
The worry was that Pitt’s name alone could not sell the picture. In the end, the opening weekend saw the Pitt film take home more than $60m at the American box office and $117m worldwide. The dire prerelease predictions meant that what were in modern blockbuster terms quite ordinary numbers were painted as a success, with suggestions that there might be a sequel.
While on the surface the numbers looked good for Pitt, they did not quite mask the new reality in Hollywood that views star-vehicle blockbusters as a risky commodity.
Monsters University, an animation film from Pixar, beat World War Z to top spot in the box office.
Other films released this year with production costs in the $200m budget range, such as Man of Steel and Iron Man, opened with weekends garnering more than $100m in the US alone. The mixed critical reaction to the zombie thriller could also see the WWZ box office plummet in the way that Man of Steel faltered in its second week. For now, Pitt has at least avoided the box-office curse that afflicted his contemporaries earlier this year.
It seems laughable to talk about the former Fresh Prince having to rebuild his castle because After Earth took “only” $27m on its opening weekend. But to film trade magazine, Variety, it was a “crash-landing”. There were numerous reasons why, none of which looks good for Smith. Since the 1996 release of Independence Day, every Smith summer movie has debuted at No 1 at the US box office. But After Earth came third, behind Fast and Furious 6 in its second week of release and, even more surprisingly, Now You See Me, a heist movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Ruffalo.
The number is also bad when
The studios now have more control over their products when stars are not involved
one compares like with like. Of Smith’s previous films, the gross is more in line with his low-budgeted dramas such as The Pursuit of Happyness than blockbuster titles Men in Black and Hancock. All this points to why financiers believe there is no upside in paying Smith a small fortune for the Independence Day sequel.
Cruise seemed to be back on track when Oblivion opened with a more than respectable $38m first weekend. That was the secondhighest opening for a Cruise vehicle outside the Mission: Impossible franchise and followed years of diminishing returns from the likes of Jack Reacher, Rock of Ages, Valkyrie and Knight and Day. But that was where the good news ended. Word of mouth was bad and audiences dwindled to the extent that Oblivion became yet another Cruise effort not to achieve blockbuster figures in the US. Of the films in which he is not playing Ethan Hunt, the last to have broken the $100m barrier was 2005’s War of the Worlds.
It’s commonly asserted that the start of Cruise’s demise was his c o u c h - j u mping proclamation of love for Katie Holmes on Oprah. Yet Cruise can argue that his box-office average has remained high since. But take away the Mission: Impossible franchise and the numbers are bleak. Before 2005, every Cruise film for a number of years made more than $100m.
The fact is that these box-office figures for Oblivion, After Earth and World War Z would look amazing if the budgets for these movies were not north of $100m before marketing costs. Once you add the cut that cinema chains and homevideo outlets take on revenue, movies need to make many times their budget to be considered a success. For a $200m picture to be deemed a success, studios need it to pull in nearly $1bn in theatres and
Oblivion. MOVE OVER, BRAD: Monsters University, the animation film from Pixar, beat World War Z to top spot in the US box office. a further $1bn on DVD and to have repeated showings on television.
Steven Soderbergh said he had to make Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, for HBO as the budget of the film was $5m, but the marketing needed for a US release is a minimum of $70m – numbers that don’t make sense.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, speaking at the University of Southern California, predicted that there would be an “implosion” in the film industry and only bigbudget superhero movies would make it to the cinemas and cost $50 to see, while low-budget dramas would be made for ever-smaller budgets and go straight to the small screen.
Compounding the stars’ misery is their ageing audience. Three quarters of the people who saw Oblivion that first weekend were over 25. Younger audiences and families opted for Monsters University over World War Z.
There has always been a tipping point where it becomes far more of a stretch to believe that male action stars are taking on the world singlehandedly. That now seems to come at around 50. Cruise is 51. Pitt will turn 50 this year. Smith is 44, and has banked on audiences buying into his youthful exuberance as a key selling factor.
Pitt is the curiosity of the trio. His box office has never been of blockbuster proportions. The big franchise of his career has been the Oceans trilogy, which had numerous stars to share the burden. His stardom has come from public perception and high-profile relationships. But add up the US box office of his last three films, Killing Them Softly, Moneyball and The Tree of Life, and the total gross is less than the amount Benjamin Button took home. World War Z is Pitt’s venture into blockbuster territory and, while the raw numbers gave Pitt his highest-grossing opening weekend, he has gambled a decade too late.
The three big stars run their own production companies – Pitt runs Plan B, Smith chairs Overbrook and Cruise founded Cruise/Wagner Productions. They call the shots on their movies.
But studios now have more control over their product when stars are not involved. The exception that proves the rule came recently when Robert Downey jr caused a ripple by threatening to stop playing Iron Man. The studio dithered, no doubt knowing it could save a fortune by letting him go. Fans balked and the studio relented.
A caveat is that the appeal of the stars seems to have not been so diminished in foreign markets. There has been a big shift in Hollywood studios’ attitudes in the past 10 years as the takings from foreign markets have started to dwarf those of domestic audiences.
Cruise has announced that he’s making a fifth instalment of Mission: Impossible. There’s also talk that he’s considering turning Jerry Maguire into a TV show. Smith has been rumoured to be preparing for sequels of Bad Boys, Hancock and I, Robot. The stars are relying on their best-known characters to sell their movies.
There seem to be no successors to Cruise, Pitt and Smith. The recent huge blockbuster franchises have been superhero movies, Batman and Spider-Man, or ensembles based on books, Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings. Studios have hit on a formula where they can call the shots. That’s bad news for the non-tights-wearing action star. – The Independent
TRYING TO KEEP IN CONTROL: Tom Cruise in his latest blockbuster,
He and fellow big-name stars are increasingly having to ensure their bankability.