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making the sausage

Polone: Why There Are No Sure-Thing Movie Stars Anymore, But Hollywood Pretends There Are

Pedestrians pass Alfred Hitchcock's star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California, U.S. on Friday, July 22, 2011. Los Angeles, which is selling $380 million in debt, may benefit from demand for California bonds with long-term issuance at the lowest since 2000. Photographer: Konrad Fiedler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If a movie star is defined as someone whom people love so much that they will automatically plunk down 12 bucks per ticket, plus 10 for parking, 40 for a baby sitter, and 7 more for popcorn (which costs the theater 50 cents to make) just because he or she is in a movie, then there is no such thing. This concept is crap and has been crap for a long time, if not forever. It's been said before, yet the studios still try to ignore the fact that in reality, the movie itself is — and should be — the star. Yes, an important element of a successful film is that it be well cast, and if the right actor is hired to play a specific part it helps make the movie good and/or something the viewer wants to see. But if a movie doesn’t interest the audience because they heard it blows or the concept seems uninteresting, they aren’t going no matter who is in it. This has been proven over and over with bombs like All About Steve (Sandra Bullock), Body of Lies (Leonardo DiCaprio), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Brad Pitt): All of these films were released by major studios, and came after a successful run of pictures for each star and within a genre with which the respective star had previously had a hit. It is equally erroneous to believe — in order to disenfranchise actors from their "star" status — that they are no longer bankable just because a bunch of their movies have failed. John Travolta was the biggest star in the world after Saturday Night Fever and Grease but eventually ended up semi-unhireable, doing straight-to-video films, before Pulp Fiction kicked off another string of hits. Now, after the failure of Old Dogs and From Paris With Love, he is probably being discounted again. Eddie Murphy’s career has had a similar trajectory. But can anyone definitively predict that either one of these actors' next films will either succeed or fail based on their recent track records? Of course not. It depends on what the film is, which is true of every actor’s next film.

The problem with the idea of the “movie star” is that film studios buy into it. This results in good movies not getting made because they haven’t attracted a star and bad movies going into production because they did get a big name to sign on the line that is dotted. On almost every film I have produced, the final hurdle to being green-lit was getting a studio-approved actor to say “yes.” On several occasions, studio executives have suggested that we should reimagine and rewrite the lead character of a movie, to the detriment of the film, just so we would have a better chance of securing a star; usually this involves making that character older or younger and on occasion changing its gender or race, which inevitably undermines the story.  Studios see having a “star” in a film as an insurance policy against loss, but that's like a policy written by a company with no capital behind it. A 1999 study done by Rutgers University economics professor S. Abraham Ravid found that “there is no statistical correlation between stars and success.” And this study looked at movies released between 1991–93, a time when stars were regularly demanding far bigger salaries than they are now . Studios willfully refuse to accept this fact, needing everyone to believe in a star system, because it gives them an important wall to hide behind when a film bombs: "It isn't my fault, I got Russell Crowe to do the movie.”

One could conjecture that the outrageous success of The Help and Bridesmaids would kick things in the right direction but, alas, that is not the case. You see, another thing Hollywood likes to believe is that they can determine if stars are stars before the box office tells them so. The rationalization here is that Emma Stone and Kristen Wiig were already “stars,” and this could be divined from their prior work. Don’t get me wrong, Emma Stone and Kristen Wiig are two of my favorite actresses under 40 and I’d be lucky to work with either. I’m just saying the deductive reasoning that actors who are part of a successful ensemble film or did well in a small movie or on TV will necessarily guarantee the success of another movie isn’t predictive of anything and won’t assure success. It is as ludicrous to think that the failure of Abduction proved that Taylor Lautner can’t be the successful lead in the right film as it was to pay him $7.5 million to do Abduction in the first place. I would bet Emma Stone and Kristen Wiig end up headlining many more hit films, not because the audience is so desperate to see them in whatever they do, but because they make good choices. Coming off of Easy A, Stone couldn’t have made a better career choice than playing Skeeter in The Help. Kristen Wiig’s ability to create a movie with a role for herself (she co-wrote Bridesmaids) gives her a big leg up on maintaining her momentum. The difficult task at hand for both now will be turning down heaps of cash to do shitty films and holding out to do the right films. Being perceived as a “star,” meaning consistently acting in successful movies, is as much about choices as it is talent. Will Smith’s unprecedented sustained box-office dominance is as much a testimony to his decision-making as a manager of his career as it is to his ability. He doesn’t do too many movies, so his presence in a film always feels special (unlike Travolta and Murphy), and even though Smith’s films haven’t always been gems, they always seem to contain standard elements that interest broad audiences: big visual effects, lighter stories, and a lot of heart. 

Though the studios don’t seem to be letting go of their need to cast “movie stars” instead of the best actors for the lead roles, the profitability of The Expendables and Valentine’s Day has created a new niche to which executives are warming: Films that can assemble a group of B- and C-listers and sell them collectively the way they would just Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock. This is a step toward making the movie the “star,” so I applaud it. In fact, I think I've come up with another version of the “ensemble as the star” approach that might work as well: a large cast of actors whom Hollywood initially thought were stars but quickly disregarded. In addition to Lautner, I could bring together Brigitte Nielsen, Rob Schneider, Judd Nelson, Paul Hogan, Hayden Christensen, and a few others in an action-comedy. I just gotta come up with a concept and a catchy title and BAM, I’m in production, baby!  Post a comment if you have any good ideas … and if you have Tom Green's e-mail address.

Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. Follow him on Twitter: @gavinpolone

Photo: Konrad Fiedler/Bloomberg via Getty Images