Why Studios Have to Overload Movies with Stars

By  · Published on June 25th, 2010

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:

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?

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.