We mortals may be reveling in the summer sun, but things aren’t so sunny in the Hollywood hills.
For many elite actors and actresses, this has been an atypically meager summer blockbuster season. Movies premiering from May to Labor Day used to mean A-listers could show up on set, phone in a performance in front of a green screen, and rake in Whedon-sized stacks of cash.
However, this summer, with the notable exception of human goldmine Robert Downey, Jr., Hollywood’s most bankable stars have largely failed to be, well, bankable. Instead, with six weeks left in the traditional summer release season, movies based on existing IPs and featuring relative unknowns have reigned at the domestic box office. I define “relative unknown” by rigorous scientific standards: if your grandmother could not pick the actor or actress out of a lineup, then you know he or she has yet to ascend to pop culture’s highest (or lowest, depending on your grandma’s taste in film) echelon.
Let’s examine the numbers: after Downey’s Iron Man 3, the second-highest grossing film in America this year has been The Man of Steel, starring walking Men’s Health ad Henry Cavill. Hitherto, the only people aware of Cavill were devotees of The Tudors, a tepid Showtime drama that took history’s worst husband, Henry VIII, asked, “but what if he had a six-pack?” and milked that concept for four seasons. Also, fans returned en masse for the Star Trek sequel, but I’m not sure we can really call Benedict Cumberbatch Hollywood “royalty.” Yet.
The three and four ranked films on the domestic chart, Despicable Me and Monsters University respectively, feature widely recognizable talent. But while everyone’s grandmother knows Billy Crystal, the marketing for animated films rarely relies on the voice actors to push tickets because no one’s 5-year old knows who Billy Crystal is.
Conversely, older millennials were likely shocked when our generation’s most iconic movie star, Will Smith, found himself skunked at the box office. Sure, After Earth featured derivative visuals and a none-too-subtle repackaging of Scientology’s core tenets and beliefs, but take a moment to remember the ’90s: Will Smith movies simply did not under-perform at the box office (OK, except that one). Yet for all Smith’s status as bona fide Hollywood royalty, After Earth opened to a disappointing $27.5 million, and has yet to crack $60 million in the United States. However, Smith’s high-profile failure has been familiar this summer. Johnny Depp managed to be both racially insensitive and party to a box office bomb with his portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. To date, that film has earned $80 million, but cost around $215 million to produce. Bruce Willis, Channing Tatum, Vince Vaughn, and Owen Wilson have all seen their expensive summer blockbusters fail to return on their investment. Most recently, R.I.P.D., starring Ryan Reynolds and the venerable Jeff Bridges, ripped off the basic premise of Men in Black, but forgot to copy the latter film’s massive ticket sales: it opened to $12.8, which is the only hilarious thing about that so-called “action comedy.”
So, what’s rotten in Tinseltown? Are our largest stars fading, threatening to implode in on themselves some Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movie? Or are audiences simply becoming savvier consumers, wising up when someone like Will Smith is playing salesman to After Earth’s obvious snake oil?
I’m tempted argue for the latter phenomenon, but that would entail having faith in my fellow man, and that has not been rewarded of late. Certainly, the the top 10 earners this summer average a 60 Metacritic score, while the next 10 notably anemic earners average a dismal 43.7. Of course, you do not have to be enrolled in summer school to know neither is a passing grade, so critical praise cannot really be the catalyst. Audiences and film critics rarely agree with each other, and this is especially true in the summer. How else can we account for staggering earnings of the Transformers franchise, or even the continued employment of the awful Shia Lebeouf? That brings us back to the first option: does star power actually qualify as power anymore? Are we doomed to movies based on board games featuring milquetoast, no-name actors?
As it often does, hope comes from afar. As I suggested last week, the international box office has not only gained in importance in recent years, but also this summer it has kept the “bankable” on many an actor’s résumé. For example, although After Earth proved uninteresting to American audiences, it has grossed a healthy $175 million internationally, and when added to its $59 domestic take, it allows Smith to wipe some of the mud from his face – with 50, if not 100, dollar bills. This year alone, Brad Pitt’s World War Z, James Franco’s Oz the Great and Powerful, and Bruce Willis’ A Good Day to Die Hard have seen their domestic misfortunes reversed into legitimate box office success almost entirely by international ticket sales.
The shimmering patina of our favorite stars may not beckon to American audiences as it once did, but foreign audiences appear to be gleaning the same delight from their performances that we once foolishly thought we alone owned.
Entertainment writers and critics love to bemoan the dearth of fresh, genuine movie stars, but shifting market trends suggest that for the first time, international — not American — may bestow that distinction on the next generation of Julia Roberts and Johnny Depps. Like so much else in this country, the stars of the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” may be made in China.