With 'After Earth' bombing at the box office, that old question: Is the clock running out on movie stars?

Posted by · 10:50 am · June 1st, 2013

A while back, as 2009 drew to a close, I wrote a piece outlining what were, in my view, the movie-related moments of the year. In the end, I idly suggested that the era of the movie star had seen its end. “When the top 10 domestic grossers of the year are finally sussed…there won”t be a Will Smith or a Tom Cruise on the list,” I wrote at the time. “There won”t be a Jim Carrey or a Julia Roberts, a Tom Hanks, a Johnny Depp or a Brad Pitt. The list will be dominated by sequels and franchises, yes, but none of them with the added benefit of star power to drive the box office.”

Today, with the news that M. Night Shyamalan's “After Earth” starring Will Smith is effectively bombing at the box office, this idea seems worth discussing again. Two years after I wrote that piece, for the first time ever (and somewhat under-reported, though understandable given the overall trend toward this end), every single film in the top 10 domestic box office was either a sequel or based on an intellectual property with a built-in fan base. The answer was clear: People don't go to the movies to see their favorite actors anymore. They go to see their favorite brands.

I don't pretend to be an expert box office analyst. I just look at the data available and make my own observations. And to me, it seems, the last true gasp of the movie star grip on things seems staggeringly long ago. I'd say it was 2000, when we saw Jim Carrey at the top (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) and a top 10 with all the highlights of the then dusking age: Tom Hanks “Cast Away” – #2), Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible II” – #3), Mel Gibson (“What Women Want” – #5), George Clooney (“The Perfect Storm” – #6) and Harrison Ford (“What Lies Beneath” – #10).

Lingering amid all those movie stars was a stab at a comic book adaptation that we would soon discover was the starting gun of the superhero movement on the big screen: Bryan Singer's “X-Men.” No year since has been so dominated by the chiseled faces of Hollywood. The year prior, in 1999, Julia Roberts was still maintaining her movie star relevance with “Runaway Bride” and “Notting Hill.” But that that was also the year I might argue saw a real shift in Hollywood brand thinking as George Lucas' “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” demolished box office records as a resounding “hmmm” likely hummed across the industry.

Speaking earlier of Tom Cruise, he seems to have been able to navigate the ups and downs of this shift well enough. In 2005, while Anakin Skywalker, Harry Potter and Batman were lighting up the box office, he was enjoying his biggest hit ever with “War of the Worlds.” Just two years ago, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” though admittedly a brand, nearly bested that. But while he may have led the box office for a weekend this year back in April with “Oblivion,” that film is still cruising (no pun intended) toward an underwhelming sub-$100 million gross stateside. Thankfully American stars still travel very well, as the film is doing good business overseas.

Other movie star misses so far this year include the pairing of Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” as well as Bruce Willis proving he couldn't even push the brand of “Die Hard” past the $75 million mark for the first time in the franchise's history. And now, “After Earth,” which is floundering behind fellow debut “Now You See Me,” of all things, and the second week for a franchise behemoth, “Fast & Furious 6.” Smith's latest looks to open around a very “Wild Wild West”-ish $27 million. That's significant.

These aren't new ideas now, though they seemed that way when I was assessing the year with that piece in 2009. And it's of course time for the progressive thinking that accompanies such epiphanies. Writing in GQ in March, Mark Harris called this a “post-movie-star universe” and suggested that the leading man as we know it is evolving. “We still need movie stars,” he wrote. “And perhaps more surprisingly, we still have movie stars-lots of them, and arguably a more talented and interesting variety than at any time in the past thirty years. But they play by new rules, and they have to navigate an industry that often seems hostile to their very existence.”

Harris's thesis was that modern movie stars need to navigate the currents of Hollywood while eschewing the business's tendency toward manufacturing and packaging what they are and what they have to offer for easy consumption every step of the way. He noted actors like Channing Tatum, Christian Bale and George Clooney, who have curated their stardom with one foot in the corporate-conscious Hollywood system and one foot outside of it.

We may be entering other interesting territory, too, where the snake begins eating its own tail. One wonders, for instance, if the Marvel brand was truly enough to bring “The Avengers” into the $600 million echelon last year or if the charisma of a guy like Robert Downey Jr., who is by now inseparable from the character of Tony Stark, had a healthy hand in it. And it's for that very reason that stars of the film, stoked by Downey, are questioning Marvel's profit sharing from the venture.

Meanwhile, Seth Rogen and his friends made a film called “This is the End,” set for release in a few weeks' time. From the outside, it appears to be a facile bit of spending a studio's money to self-indulgently cut up with buddies on camera. In some ways, that's exactly what it is. But that idea is also very much a part of the film's overall thematic heft, and I would argue that it ultimately flips the concept of “movie star” on its ear. It's also a riotously hilarious film with something smart to say.

At the end of the summer, I wouldn't be surprised if “This is the End” turned out to be a box office story, and we could very well be asking ourselves, “Is this self-awareness the new black?” Someone in a suit somewhere will be wondering if he can get Will Smith and Tom Cruise together for a romp about their daily routine, I guarantee it. But it'll be the wrong thinking, of course.

The days of packaging success with the talent involved could be waning, and that surely sends a shiver up the spines of agents everywhere. But more to the point, the audience's appetite has shifted (or maybe it has BEEN shifted, by a business model that force feeds). However, it's still ever nebulous, even if we can note brand appeal and franchise loyalty as evidence of an evolution. A movie like “Ted” can still suddenly crack $218 million and settle in alongside Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman, Bilbo Baggins, James Bond and the “Twilight” brats in the top 10.

And perhaps that's the proper final note here. There's always hope that freshness finds a way. “Ted” wasn't a pre-existing property and I don't think one would classify Mark Wahlberg as a movie star on the level of those that tend to bring in that kind of bank. Outside of “Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio had never cracked $200 million at the box office until “Inception,” an original idea fully formed from the brain of Christopher Nolan, came along. But the question becomes, was “Inception” sold on the heels of “The Dark Knight”'s success? The marketing sure pushed that point and so the idea lingers.

By definition, there is no formula for those kinds of surprises. And all eyes will be on Guillermo Del Toro's “Pacific Rim” in July to see if original high concept can strike again, though without the benefit of anything approaching a movie star to bring in the audience. But to bring it full circle to that 2009 piece, I noted at the time that, more than ever, we're proving that “material and marketing is king.” Is that so? I guess we'll all find out together, audiences and filmmakers — and movie stars — alike.

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