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Polone: Why Stars Don’t Matter — and Never Have

The process of getting a star that the studio wants on your film is, for me, probably the most frustrating thing about producing a movie. The targets change from week to week, depending on box-office results or even the buzz on movies that haven’t yet been released. Before The Hunger Games, I had Jennifer Lawrence give the best reading for parts on two movies I was casting but getting her approved by the studio was impossible. Now every studio is throwing money at her to get her into whatever they have. Taylor Kitsch was hot and now he is probably cold. After the last Mission: Impossible movie I heard multiple people say “Tom Cruise is back.” I was unaware that he was gone. Is he gone again now because Rock of Ages underperformed?  The answer is: It depends on his next movie, Jack Reacher. This kind of inductive reasoning is silly and leads to false conclusions, higher budgets, and miscast movies.

Hiring an actor who has previously played the lead in a successful film does not necessarily convert into success and hiring a non-star cast doesn’t ensure failure. Hiring a star does always mean a higher budget for the picture and, sometimes, that the best actor for the part was passed over because he or she was not deemed “bankable” by the studio. I don’t think any studio executive would disagree with me on any of this, and yet when a studio has a script that they like and are thinking about making, whether or not that picture goes into production most likely depends on the attachment of a “bankable star.” And yet, history shows that there isn’t really any actor whose participation means a project will succeed. Vulture has just listed the 100 Most Valuable Stars, but my view is that there really is no such thing as a “star” the way this site uses the term; the right actor cast in the right part, whether they are well known or not, makes a movie good, and good adds value, regardless of the level of his or her celebrity. Big-name stars don’t necessarily sell tickets; they sell magazines when there is a story on the cover about their divorce.

My review of past box-office performance shows little correlation between “star vehicles” and hits. Looking at last year’s top 100 films at the U.S. box office (excluding animated pictures, which don’t succeed or fail because of movie stars’ voices, and sequels, which shouldn’t count as star vehicles), I see 21 starless films that, given their reported production budgets, probably made money. The list includes Thor, Planet of the Apes, Captain America, The Help, Bridesmaids, Super 8, Immortals, War Horse, and Dolphin Tale. Using that same criteria, I see 21 star vehicles (movies led by someone who, in the recent past, had starred in another hit movie) that made money. Then I looked at the probable money-losers in the top 100. As far as I can tell, there was just one starless movie that lost money, Sucker Punch, while there were sixteen money-losers with touted, proven names, including Cowboys & Aliens, Red Riding Hood, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. If you go back ten years before that, you’ll see a similar dispersal of winners to losers with the first Fast and the Furious, Save the Last Dance, and Legally Blonde (the movie that made Reese Witherspoon a star) in the win column and Jennifer Lopez’s Angel Eyes, Jim Carrey’s The Majestic, and Martin Lawrence’s What’s the Worst That Can Happen? going the other way. Ten years before that, Fried Green Tomatoes was a big hit and Robert De Niro’s Guilty by Suspicion was a huge bomb.   

I asked the successful head of marketing at a major studio if he needed a star to market a movie and he responded, “People pay money for concepts. Having a star doesn’t matter. There are a couple of stars who work within a concept. Daniel Craig is the best example; he hasn’t worked outside Bond. There is a legitimacy in Liam Neeson. I feel that Brad Pitt legitimized Inglourious Basterds. It made it mainstream. But if you have to take a leap with the concept, like on [Johnny Depp’s] Rum Diary, then it doesn’t matter. I’d rather have a $6 million actor and a good concept than someone else for $15 million and hope that the concept works.” All of that does make sense: The right actor in the right role will be attractive to an audience. It puts the horse before the cart; unfortunately, that’s not how studios usually green-light a movie.

The foreign market is frequently cited as the reason that stars matter. Whenever I’m trying to get an independent film going, I am always presented with a list that comes from a sales agent working on behalf of a prospective financier; this list shows the predicted international value of various actors or actresses on whose name the film is to be financed. The problem with this practice tends to be that those who are valuable internationally may not be as worthy to distributors in the U.S., or right creatively for the movie. A top international sales agent gave me the example that, “Jean Claude Van Damme is still huge in Eastern Europe and he may still be the No. 1 star in Turkey. That’s why he continues to get projects financed.” That’s all fine, but I could never get him approved to lead a movie here. If I’m trying to get an independent movie going with a female lead, the first two names that I’m almost always given from whoever is selling the movie around the world, regardless of what the movie is about, are Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale, based on the overwhelming strength of the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises in most international markets. It could be a comedy about a bookish woman from Alabama and the first thing I will hear from the sales agent will be “Jovovich.” If I counter with anyone from Rachel McAdams to Emily Blunt, I will receive a disappointed, “Maybe … if you get someone like Gerard Butler to play the guy who works at the gas station.” 

The argument that the international market, with the added millions it brings in, proves the existence of “movie stars” doesn’t really ring true to me. The list of the movies that did really well internationally is pretty much the same as those that scored in America. And the success of movies that were saved from ruin by disproportionate grosses abroad likely had nothing to do with stars; The Prince of Persia, with its $200 million budget, underperformed in the U.S. with a $91 million gross, but took in $244 million internationally. Was that because of Jake Gyllenhaal or because the concept and a lot of VFX were something that audiences in other countries found attractive? I would maintain the latter, given that other Gyllenhaal movies didn’t do as well internationally; action and CGI are the international language.

Now, before you start writing a comment below about how Will Smith is a star and his movies always make money, let me agree with you — sort of.  Will Smith, in my mind, is a great actor, but his movies work because he doesn’t do very many of them and he chooses them well. I would bet that his track record would be much more inconsistent if he were to appear in as many productions as Nic Cage, who has probably appeared in as many hits as Smith but whose success-to-failure ratio is less than half. It is easier for a studio to finance a big payday for an actor than it is to develop a good script, and if an actor wants to maintain a high percentage of winning movies, they will have to be discriminating and have a strong sense of the kinds of films that will work for them. If anything, having Will Smith in a movie is a predictor of its box-office potential because he chose to be in it rather than because he is in it. 

Why, then, do studios continue to chase so-called “movie stars” for their films as opposed to just casting whoever would make the best movie? Because it provides cover for the decision-makers: If it fails, they can say, “I couldn’t have made a mistake by green-lighting this film because Leo is in it.” It’s about insecurity, which is rarely the basis of superior decision-making. I’m not suggesting that anyone making a bet of $100 million to $400 million on a movie shouldn’t feel any anxiety about its performance, nor am I saying that they shouldn’t do everything possible to ensure they make a profit on that bet. All I’m saying is that they should start seeing the movie as the “star” and how they cast the movie as being an integral part of making the movie good, not an insurance policy in case the film turns out to be bad. History shows that insurance policy rarely pays off.