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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODMOVIES - KALEEM AFTAB

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.

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