Why Studios Have to Overload Movies with Stars

Last night, my fiancee and I were walking into a screening of Grown Ups when we were bombarded by what might be the largest advertising lobby cutout we’ve ever seen. It was for The Expendables, and it was awe-inspiring with slightly-larger-than-life cardboard versions of Stallone, Li, Statham, Rourke, Willis, Lundgren, and Austin. Seven big men all towering over and silently inviting us to come see them kick ass.

In some ways, a film like that seems like the natural product of a bunch of friends who want to get together to work on the same film – a last hurrah while they can all still jump away from an explosion. It’s a lot like Grown Ups, which sees the comedic equivalent play out in some harmless, mindless summer fun. A quick look at Sandler, Rock, James, Schneider, and Spade’s careers, and it becomes clear that they’ve all crossed paths enough to make getting together seem like a no-brainer.

But more than vanity projects and working vacations with pals, it may be the case that studios are looking more and more to these types of movies simply because placing one name on the poster isn’t enough anymore.

Grown Ups is a fairly typical ensemble film, and the five names on the marquee aren’t exactly electric, but they are all recognizable. Interestingly enough, it’s the fact that none of the names are top tier that’s most telling because, frankly, there are only a few names that are top tier anymore. George Clooney? Will Smith? Angelina Jolie? Brad Pitt? Tom Cruise? Granted I’m going off the top of my head, but you’d imagine that when thinking of the top money draws in the business, they’d all be able to jump right out of the top.

Few do, and what’s worse: they seem to be losing their appeal.

As if by design, the first film with Tom Cruise headlining since 2008’s Valkyrie also comes out this weekend, and so far, Knight and Day is not looking great.

It’s a younger trend, but studios are starting to load down one sheet space with notable names in order to draw audiences into theaters. It’s a response to the loss of the Actor as Box Office Savior mode of thinking – an evolution of it in a way. If a huge star can’t bank anymore, why not get two? Why not get six?

There are so many ways to observe and crunch box office numbers, so I was curious just to look at the films these stars have been in that have done over $100 million domestic. That seems to be a banner of achievement, although it may be a bit too lofty a goal. Still, using it as a rubbery rubric is a revealing way to think about the concept of the blockbuster star.

Here’s some mathematical food for thought:

  • George Clooney isn’t really known for opening over $100 million, and has opened 6 films that haven’t since the last film to cross the mark, Ocean’s 13 in 2007. It should be noted that Ocean’s 13 falls into the category of stuffing a film with known stars.
  • Will Smith was once looked to as a sure thing for a blockbuster. He was last in Seven Pounds which only garnered $70 million and isn’t concretely slated to star again until 2012’s Men In Black 3 (a creation of the other major trend happening in Hollywood). His last blockbuster was 2008’s Hancock which earned $227 million, meaning a possible 4 year absence from doing so – a mini-drought where the studios can’t capitalize on him.
  • Angelina Jolie has had some success in the past as a star, but her last over the mark was Wanted in 2008 that grabbed $134 million. Before that, it was her pairing with fellow star (and now-husband) Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005 which rocketed $186 million then – belying the potential of 2000 and 2001 when Jolie opened Gone in 60 Seconds and Lara Croft to the tune of $101 million and $131 million back to back.
  • Brad Pitt was last headlining in Benjamin Button, which didn’t make its production budget back with its domestic take. He was, however, a major figure for Inglourious Basterds (although the draw was probably more Tarantino), and found success with over $120 million. Along with George Clooney, he was part of the Ocean’s 13 crew and was paired with Jolie for the Smith haul.
  • Tom Cruise had a minor role in Tropic Thunder (being far from the main draw of the film) which made over $100 million but barely made over its production budget. It’s a similar story for Mission Impossible III in 2006. If we consider his last major starring role that found success was in War of the Worlds, he hasn’t been crushingly bankable since 2005, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be this weekend.

The thing to keep in mind here is that these figures are domestic, and in almost all of the cases, these films made more money internationally (by healthy margins) over domestic takes. This isn’t a surprise, but even with their names bringing in pounds, euros, and yen, the power of the dollar has been lost somewhat, and I can’t imagine that rings positive for those who are trying to rake in cash.

By my possibly unfair standard, the most consistently bankable star is either named Pixar or Harry Potter.

In a way, the Ocean’s films might be the modern father of the star-cramming trend. As I said before, it’s fairly young, but it’s an understandable response. Last year saw the bloated He’s Just Not That Into You which gave birth to the absurdly-cast Valentine’s Day and the promise of more than a few copycats (including a sequel of sorts for Valentine’s Day). Almost all Apatow productions have become a similar gathering of the well-known comedians (although I’m not sure it really fits in line with this trend yet). Wild Hogs and its offshoot are two more examples in the comedy world, Grown Ups is like the cool kid table version of that, The Expendables is milking the trend for all its worth in the action world later this Summer, and Transformers 3 has already announced a whopping 10 notable names attached to its mammoth production.

There are mixed results here. Some of the films have found success by cramming every name talent onto the marquee at once and some haven’t done as well. To this point, none have exactly wowed critically either.

Also, I’ll admit it’s a little premature to call this a trend, but it is something that’s becoming more noticeable when you’re greeted in the theater lobby by more than a half dozen recognizable faces all pitching the same film. Hell, the Expendables cardboard lobby fold out must have been a bitch and a half to set up, and that alone seems to be a horrible manifest result of this trend.

Still, it’s something to keep an eye on. Right now, it’s obvious that remakes and sequels upon sequels are the name of the game in recognition, but if studios continue seeing solid results from combining their star efforts, we’ll see more and more overcrowded movie posters. Even if all the names on it are expendable.

What do you think?

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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