For the sake of consistency, and to keep my points relevant, I’m going to restrain my argument to the American box office’s last eight years or so.
Before Seven Pounds, Will Smith was on a gold-streak in which he was widely considered a consistent $100M+ box office star regardless of genre. Even when he took a short break from exclaiming “awww, hell nawwww”and turned toward the sappy (The Pursuit of Happyness), audiences still flocked in the millions to see his work. And, for the most part, the same went for Tom Cruise before Lions for Lambs; when Cruise played against type (Collateral) or happened to be in the media’s hot-seat for extreme bouts of kookiness during a major release (Mission: Impossible III), his work still managed to perform well. The two of them seemed genuinely bankable. Now, cut to modern day, and the reverse is in effect: Smith hits a relative dud with Seven Pounds, which now stands at the $62M mark after three weeks and is not poised to take in much more than $80M domestically. Meanwhile, Cruise is pulling in nearly identical figures with his own recent release, Valkyrie. And, going back just a year, Cruise’s Lions for Lambs bombed with a paltry domestic cumulative total of $15M. To throw one last “A-lister” into the mix, Tom Hanks has followed the exact same trend: a phenomenal string of around seven $100M+ and $200M+ blockbusters concluded by a contemporary (relative) bomb—in his case, Charlie Wilson’s War. These numbers, among several other factors, support the notion that American box office performance does not directly hinge upon a film’s A-list cast—and, that any correlation therein is more likely the result of studios sweetening already buzz-worthy films with some seemingly buzz-worthy actors for the sake of selling DVD’s to the uninitiated elderly and foreign markets. However, when it comes to $100M+ films, there is one prominent exception: Adam Sandler. For the most part, when you see a Sandler film, you know exactly what you’re getting—and that expectation has been reinforced so strongly by his steady resumé of moderately-appraised releases that his films have almost never deviated from cumulative domestic totals of $100M.
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “So what? Isn’t it obvious that films sometimes perform poorly regardless of whom they star—likely due to poor timing combined with an off-key marketing campaign? End of story.” Fortunately for an editorial’s sake, there’s a lot more to it than that—a lot of interesting things are at work here. Let us first begin by taking a look at the poster for Smith’s recent Seven Pounds: The studios were so extremely confident, primarily due to the success of the similarly-toned Happyness, that his name alone would sell tickets that they literally decided to put him, and just him, on the film’s posters—seriously, just him wearing a suit and staring at you. They didn’t even bother properly pitching it (beyond highlight a few vague words in the background)—instead, they wrote “From the director of The Pursuit of Happyness.” Studio executives were so confident in the movie’s ability to parallel the success of Happyness that they didn’t even bother traditionally marketing it to potential audiences. They simply reduced their campaign to: “Hey, it’s like that other film—no, really—now go out and see it.” And, let’s not even start with the offensive ambiguity of the film’s trailers… What this anecdote does, at minimum, is help to affirm the wide-spread belief that studios genuinely believe that A-list stars, more often than not, are the driving force behind big-budget vehicles. As fellow FSR writer Kevin Carr so concisely put it: “It seems that the folks covering the Hollywood inside think that people are so stupid that they don’t know a good movie from a bad movie. They also assume that people instantly react to star power, regardless of the movie being a turd bigger than a cocker spaniel.” Carr’s spot-on.
So Smith, Cruise, and Hanks have recently had relative box office bombs, and the folks behind Seven Pounds (namely, the marketing crew at Columbia Pictures) believe little in your ability to think for yourself. But, so what? Well, here’s where things get interesting: Recently, a director has emerged so harshly against the grain with his obscure casting choices, and has been met with such a great degree success regardless of those choices, that he has—arguably single-handedly—lead the redefinition of the blockbuster. That man is none other than Zack Snyder. Now, I know that it is a little presumptuous to assume that the currently-pending Watchmen will be a blockbuster, but I really don’t think that I’m going out on much of a limb when I throw that assumption out there—the film’s current fanfare, particularly that which has been so passionately vocalized online, speaks for itself. His already-released blockbuster, 300, however, elucidates my point quite nicely: It starred a somewhat-known Gerard Butler, whose most financially successful film before 300 was 2003’s $65M-grossing Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. But, more importantly, Butler was among a cast comprised of the truly obscure: Lena Headey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, and Dominic West.
Now, before I continue, please remember that “obscure” doesn’t mean “unknown.” Instead, think of it more as a producer’s term meaning “this person doesn’t look particularly tested—they have neither a particularly large fan base nor a particularly large body of work to make them notably marketable.” On that note, I highly doubt that the aforementioned cast was ringing any bells for the average moviegoer when they first went in to see 300. I’d also wager that, to this day, those actors still don’t rank high in any of those moviegoers’ mental celebrity registrars. But, now for the numbers: Against a reported budget of a mere $65M, 300 went on to pull in an impressive $210M domestically and an additional whopping $245M overseas. Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, clearly learned a thing or two from 300’s financial success and decided to green-light Snyder’s follow-up feature, Watchmen, with a slightly-expanded budget of $100M but with an equally as obscure cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, and Carla Gugino. Granted, Crudup and Gugino might have a subtle and respectable body of work behind them, but they are a far cry from what anyone would currently consider a “blockbuster property.”
Clearly, Warner Bros. realized how much money they could save on their tentpoles’ budgets by not paying A-listers (or anyone close to an A-lister) after the box office success of 300, and consequently exercised that option with Watchmen. There is, of course, more to such a decision than merely reducing budget—Zack Snyder and his casting directors quite likely found the utmost suitable actors to play their respective parts. And, in all honesty, this is how every movie should be cast: forsake the big names for a better casted—and, consequently, a better acted—film. If an A-lister happens to perfectly fit the bill for a certain role, then by all means go ahead budget him or her in, but certainly do not consistently resort to $20M A-listers in hopes of guaranteeing some sort of a box office success. That’s just crazy talk. I strongly believe that some kudos should be sent the way of Snyder and WB for going with narrative-appropriate casting choices instead of marketing-appropriate casting choices.
With Watchmen seemingly poised to be met with a box office success similar to that of 300, the other major studios will soon have some very hard-hitting facts on their hands to finally confront—that is, if they have any desire to stop releasing expensive bombs (with inflated budgets that pay out $10M+ stars), then naïvely blaming those financial failures on innocent scapegoats (ie. hard-working directors and writers). Once Watchmen is released, and it proves itself financially viable, I’m quite certain that the industry will take that success—combined with 300’s—as enough evidence to finally start rethinking casting, as a whole, for their blockbusters down the line. I have a good feeling that the epic blockbuster as we know it is about to change for the better; casting budgets will be reduced, thus resulting in more money for greater and more realistic story-telling, and films will finally be casted for the right reasons.