Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reality cheque

Can't find the online link to this article of mine in yesterday's Irish Independent Review section so here it is...

Lights, camera, paycut for Hollywood A-listers

JULIA ROBERTS’S recent comeback movie Duplicity had an outlandish premise. She and on-screen love interest Clive Owen play former spies who plan to retire on a $40 million windfall by pulling off a dangerous piece of corporate espionage.

A more realistic scenario would have simply required Julia to turn up in two movies while Clive stayed at home packing the suitcases. As an A-list actress who pulled in $25m at her peak (for Mona Lisa Smile in 2003), she would have feathered their nest in no time at all.

Six months on from Duplicity’s low-key performance at the box office – it took in $78m worldwide, but cost $60m to make – Roberts’s regular pay cheque of $20m looks pretty hefty to the layman.

The lukewarm reception to her stellar charms was reflected in a high proportion of this year’s star-led movies. Pelham 1 2 3 (Denzel Washington and John Travolta), State of Play (Russell Crowe), Angels and Demons (Tom Hanks ), Funny People (Adam Sandler), Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell) and Imagine That (Eddie Murphy) all underperformed at the box office somewhere along a sliding scale of average to appalling.

The top-grossing films of this summer’s popcorn season? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Up, and Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, starring, ahem, Shia LaBeouf, Ed Asner and Daniel Radcliffe. The new cinematic success is based on big concepts rather than big names.

“This was not a star-driven summer,” admitted Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group.

Peter Guber, the former chairman of Sony Pictures, expressed his shock to the New York Times last month at the apparent inability of A-list actors to guarantee a blockbuster opening weekend.

“The cratering of films with big stars is astounding,” he said. “These supertalented people are failing to aggregate a large audience, and everybody is looking for answers.”

Will Smith is currently the most bankable Hollywood star, according to an exhaustive list compiled by business and finance analysts Forbes. He didn’t open a film this summer but even the so-called ‘critic-proof’ Smith felt a chill wind blowing on his last film Seven Pounds. It only earned $14m at the US box office on its opening weekend last Christmas, compared to the $77m his I Am Legend took on its opening
weekend exactly 12 month previously.

I would look back even further to 2007, when newcomer Seth Rogen wrote and starred in the low-budget Superbad. Its relatively unknown ensemble cast pulled in $31m in the US in its first weekend alone, shooting it straight to No.1 in the box office chart. Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman’s new film The Invasion also opened that week. It took in a measly $6m and languished at No.5.

The less-than-sparkling returns on star vehicles has Hollywood – and its A-listers – on the edge of their seats. (Which is more than audiences can say for some of their recent films).

Have stars lost their pulling power? And if so, will the studios be calling time on the $20 million-plus pay cheque?

Marc Shmuger, chairman of Universal Pictures, said in an interview last month: “Stars will always be important, but the industry is definitely seeing a transformation in their ability to open movies.” He was speaking from experience.
Universal had the misfortune to release Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost, which cost $100m to make but which only made $62m in ticket sales.

The studio also distributed Funny People last month. It was written and directed by Judd Apatow, the comic Midas whose previous outings The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up tore up the landscape of movie comedy and replanted it to sprout pure gold. Apatow’s friend and regular on the $20m pay list Adam Sandler starred. It has taken in $52m so far – still under its estimated $75m production budget.

It could be that the A-listers have had devilish bad luck in picking their films this year. But their poor performance can’t be explained by bad scripts alone. The 53 films of Adam Sandler’s career, for example, have scored a dire average critical rating of 11% on, which compiled movie reviews from across the world. Yet he has been a box office winner, his movies raking in $1.6bn since 2001.

If Sandler can’t flog a movie, there must be something poisoning the water.
Some industry insiders point to the rise in new media technologies like Twitter and texting which work as an instant word of mouth.

“You look around the theatre and can see the glow, not on people’s faces from watching the movie, but on their chins — from the BlackBerrys and iPhones,” said ex-Sony chief Guber. “They are immediately telling their friends whether it’s worth their time. And the answer to that, more often than not, seems to be no.”

Paparazzi culture has also stripped the stars of some of their mystique. The A-listers must yearn for the glory days of cinema when the only way for an audience to find out what Bette Davis or Cary Grant were up to was to go see them in their latest film.

Young men feature heavily in today’s cinema-going demographic, and they are big consumers of genre films like horror which rarely waste an A-lister’s talent on a grisly death. The current No1 hitter at the US box office is the latest installment of the Final Destination slasher films – and it is on its second week. The new Sandra Bullock rom-com All About Steve, by comparison, has just opened but has already been pushed into third place.

The rise of Pixar and other animated technologies have led to family-friendly hits like Ice Age, Shrek and Toy Story (all of these have sequels on the way out). They are a new outlet for the voiceover talents of A-listers – Cameron Diaz, Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Tom Hanks in Toy Story for example.

But while it’s a nice way to knock out a few million while coming to work in jeans and flip-flops, the pay cheques are not as substantial as for an on-screen role.
Studios are starting to realise that star franchises are fading in the face of themed franchises. Harry Potter has made a household name of Daniel Radcliffe but his salary pales in comparison to the $900m the Half-Blood Prince has taken this summer.

It’s considered less risky these days to build a film around an existing fanbase, like the teenybopper readers of Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight books or Marvel comic fans.

How is Hollywood reacting? With widescale job losses in the industry, some must surely be eyeing the well padded pay packets of the top-tier actors.

The complex wrangling between studios and stars’ agents is traditionally shrouded in paranoid secrecy. But this year it became a matter of public discussion when Hollywood bible Variety cited two sources from new Denzel Washington film Unstoppable who said that the actor and 20th Century Fox were having difficulties coming to an agreement on the terms of his contract.

Washington, they said, was asked to take $4m off his usual $20m fee and the director Tony Scott asked to reduce his fee from $9m to $6m. Washington formally withdrew from the film earlier this summer, but has since climbed back on board. To say what agreement was finally reached between the two sides, if any, would be speculative but the initial difficulties of getting the show on the road signals how doggedly studios are fighting for every penny in this climate.

Some A-listers who are used to upfront payments for their services are looking for ways to be flexible: Jim Carrey took a sizeable share in the upcoming Yes Man instead of a straight-forward pay cheque.

There is no danger of stars being dumped altogether. Their names are still vital in selling a project to financiers at the outset, if not to an audience at the other end. Industry experts say it is still the case that star-led films are always easier to sell to TV channels and overseas.

There is one inescapable truth behind the star system: they are stars because they have charisma or talent or however you wish to account for that X-factor. They might be forced to take a pay cut, but we can’t do without them entirely.

And all is not lost. Brad Pitt is still pulling them in. Considering the flop that was Quentin Tarantino’s last movie, Grindhouse, and the difficulty of selling his brand of violent film to a mainstream audience, Inglourious Basterds has been doing sterling work at the box office.

The marketing campaign for Inglourious Basterds focused on the presence of Brad Pitt as a tough-talking Nazi hunter even though he features in only half the movie. But the publicists think: Nazis and Pitt - there’s a winning combination. They were right.

While the A-listers might hanker after a bygone era when a star name instantly put bums on theatre seats, they would not want a return to the pay scale imposed then by a rigid studio system.
Star power in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s was nothing in the face of the control of the ‘Big Five’, the major studios of the time, MGM, Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros and Fox.
Actors were locked into inflexible contracts, existing on a monthly salary that was a tiny percentage of the money their films made for the studios. Their image and personal lives were carefully protected and careers could fail or rise on the whim of a movie executive.
Bette Davis described her contract with Warner Brothers as “slavery” and took them to court in the late ’30s in a bid to regain control over the parts she could play. She told a journalist: “I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.” Warners’ lawyer referring to her as “a naughty young lady” who just wanted more money. She lost the case but it paved the way for Olivia de Havilland who took a similar case in 1943 and won.
Jimmy Cagney, Hollywood’s favourite gangster, proved he had muscle off-screen too when he challenged Warner Bros (again), establishing the walkout as a means of renegotiating better financial and artistic terms with studios. He established his own production company in 1942, Cagney Productions, and by the time he returned to Warners four years later, they agreed to pay him a whopping $324,000 a year making him their biggest-earning star.
Cary Grant showed the steel behind his gentlemanly image when he, as Humphrey Bogart before him, escaped the studio system in the 1950s by becoming a hugely successful freelance. He was considered a maverick for producing his own films with Grantley Productions, which were then distributed by Universal. By taking the reins, Grant could chose which actors and directors he worked with, as well as take a cut of the profits, a situation easily negotiated by today’s A-listers but uncommon in the 1950s.

THE TOP TEN GROSSING MOVIES OF 2009 SO FAR (and their, er, stars)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - $400,641,549 – Based on a cartoon, this explosions-and-robots extravaganza starred Shia LeBoeuf and Megan Fox
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - $297,614,366 – Based on the best-selling kids books, another episode of CGI wizardry starring ensemble cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint.
Up - $290,866,563 – Disney-Pixar animation about an elderly man who ties balloons to his house and flies away (!), voiced by Ed Asner.
The Hangover - $272,197,388 – dark comedy about a Vegas stag night, “starring” Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis. Does have a cameo from Mike Tyson though.
Star Trek - $257,171,491 – Based on the TV series, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy (yes, Spock)
Monsters Vs. Aliens - $198,351,526 – IMAX 3D sci-fi animation hit featuring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Kiefer Sutherland and Renee Zellwegger.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs - $194,224,066 – Latest in Ice Age animated franchise with Queen Latifah, John Leguizamo and Dennis Leary the only famous voices among many characters.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine - $179,875,159 – Based on the Marvel comic character, played here by Hugh Jackman.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian - $176,794,393 – Sequel to first successful Museum movie, based on a children’s book, starring Ben Stiller and Amy Adams.
The Proposal - $161,137,964 – Rom-com starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds (Mr Scarlett Johanssen)

VALUE-FOR-MONEY LEAD ACTORS… These are the top ten actors who Forbes magazine have worked out give the studios the best bang for their buck (ie, their salary as a percentage of the profits their movies have made) in the 12 months to this July. No female actors made the list.
1. Shia LeBoeuf (Transformers, Indiana Jones). Return on investment: $160 revenue for every dollar of salary
2. James McAvoy (Wanted, Penelope). Return on investment: $114
3. Michael Cera (Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Year One): $102
4. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter franchise): $93
5. Robert Downey Jnr (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man): $78
6. Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Love in the time of Cholera, No Country for Old Men) $73
7. Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal, Definitely, Maybe, Just Friends): $61
8. Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation, The Dark Knight): $55
9. Aaron Eckhart (No Reservations, Thank You for Not Smoking, The Dark Knight): $45
10. Dennis Quaid (Smart People, The Express, Vantage Point): $43

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