Monday, March 8, 2010

Then one by one, the stars would all go out...

For Oscars weekend, I had a look at the fading star system for the Irish Independent's Review section.

Actors will battle with computer-animated sprites for tomorrow's Oscars as technology threatens the big names, writes Susan Daly

PICTURE three A-lister actors in a room together. Sandra Bullock, the star whose movies made most money in 2009; Morgan Freeman, the actor who has just crowned a career of playing wise, dignified men by playing wise, dignified Nelson Mandela; and Jeff Bridges, hotly tipped to take the Best Actor Oscar for A Crazy Heart.

They are gathered for Newsweek magazine’s annual Oscar nomination shortlist discussion. And they are not entirely happy. They have just been asked what they think of motion-capture acting, the method used in the blockbuster Avatar to capture actors’ facial expressions and map them onto computer-generated images.

Avatar, the most commercially successful and technologically advanced film in
cinematic history, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards.
Not one of those nominations is for an actor.

Freeman looks stern. “I think it’s a bit faddish,” he says. “Because it’s really cartoons.” Bullock maintains she hasn’t seen it yet. Jeff Bridges plays the diplomatic card. “It was a little uncomfortable,” he says, “but there’s something exciting about it too. It’s where it’s all going.”

Mind you, Bridges would say that – he had his face animated by the same technique for the upcoming sequel to his 1982 science fiction hit Tron.

Their unease is understandable. Avatar suggests that a film can make actors a secondary concern and still be nominated for Best Picture. It may even win – Hollywood does like a movie that shows the industry can still churn out $2 billion-dollar blockbusters.

It’s clear that motion-capture still requires an actor to emote the incredibly accurate range of expression that appears on screen – they just don’t need to be big name stars. Sam Robinson and Zoe Saldana are the actors behind the blue-skinned ‘avatars’ of the movie. If you haven’t heard of them, you are in excellent company.

The Avatar outcry is interesting because this technology has been making inroads at the box office for a few years now. The hideous Gollum creature in Lord of the Rings was created through motion-capture (dubbed MoCap by the industry, don’t you know). The actor he was based on was the very excellent but not at all well-known character actor Andy Serkis. Serkis was also the face emoting the tantrums of King Kong in the 2005 CGI remake of that movie. At least that’s one actor making a few bob out of the new technology.

The hugely successful Pixar animation films started off using stars to voice their movies. Toy Story in 1995 had Tom Hanks and Monsters, Inc (2001) had Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. As time went on, the stellar line-ups largely disappeared but success continued. No Pixar film has ever made a loss. Its latest – and also a runner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars – is Up. The voice actor with the highest profile attached to the project is probably Ed Asner, best known for playing TV’s Lou Grant.

By contrast, a huge star doesn’t guarantee big box office. Last summer’s record for star-cast movies was bad enough: Julia Roberts, the first Hollywood actress to be able to command a $20m cheque for her ability to lead movies to box office receipts of $100m or more, had a deflated return to the screen with the loss-making Duplicity. Denzel Washington and John Travolta made a disappointing profit of about $50m with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Even Eddie Murphy, the so-called critic-proof star, saw his fans turn their nose up at his comedy, Imagine That. It cost around $55m to make and took in around $22m. Imagine that.

The bigger picture looks no better. The lead actors in the highest-grossing movies of the decade included Elijah Wood (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale (Spider-man and Batman), Shia LaBeouf (Transformers). Johnny Depp also gets a look-in based mainly on his participation in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Mike Myers is there mostly in voice alone, for the animated Shrek series. In fact, you have to go to No.25 to find a bona fide star, Tom Hanks, with The Da Vinci Code – and that film arguably traded off the bestselling book it was based on.

We speak of George Clooney as the successor to Cary Grant. Clooney, however, has only just tasted what it is to be the lead of a $100m film as Up In The Air has nudged over that mark. (The Oceans series made over the $100m, but he was sharing the limelight with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.) Tom Cruise, formerly the actor with the longest consecutive runs of $100m opening weekends, only managed a $22m opening weekend with Valkyrie – although it has taken over $200m since its Christmas 2008 launch.

So here’s the situation: franchise movies and movies based on comics, books and video games are hot, hot, hot. Franchise actors are not. In the so-called golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, John Wayne, Bing Crosby or the aforementioned Grant hardly knew what it was to flip-flop between hits and misses. (See the panel for the all-time biggest box office draws). Their names were franchises in the way the new Harry Potter film is now, guaranteeing a sellout opening weekend.

Individual star wattage shone even more brightly in accepted franchise pairings – Tracy and Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall, Astaire and Rogers, Crosby and Hope, Crawford and Gable, Powell and Loy, Garland and Rooney. Certain actor-director combos were also surefire winners – Grant and Hitchcock, Wayne and Ford spring to mind.

Some of the most popular actors did consistently well because they were contained within the studio star system which, when it identified a genre that was working well for their starlets, tended to want them to stay in it. Screwball comedy and westerns produced some of the biggest stars because that’s what the audience wanted to see. If you think about it, genre films continue to be the biggest draw at today’s box office: comedy, action, horror and teen franchises like Twilight or Harry Potter. It’s just that the demographic of the audience has changed to a much younger one and so the genres they prefer have too.

All is not entirely lost for our dwindling pack of A-list stars. It is true that they have had more trouble justifying the $20m pay cheque if their films consistently fail to attract box office heat. But there are still some stars who can do it – after that modest opening weekend, Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie ended up taking $200m worldwide and he’s taking no chances by signing up to Mission Impossible IV.

Either way that one turns out, he can either claim a success based on his brand name, or a failure that shows franchises are not the always a winner. Brad Pitt is acknowledged as a still substantial draw – that’s why the promotion for Inglorious Basterds focused largely on him, even though he’s only in half the movie.

There is also the argument that technology has been threatening to overtake the star system for about, oh, three decades now, from the introduction of CGI in the early 1980s. And what happened there? Actor and CGI managed to peacefully co-exist. In fact, would Titanic have made stars of Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in 1997 had they been forced to ‘keep it real’ and make it on a ferry?

Morgan Freeman shouldn’t worry too much about being made redundant – but he might want to think about getting fitted for a MoCap face mask.

PULLING POWER – The definitive list of box office stars
The A-list star is not yet extinct but the cold, hard facts of cash show that they don’t have the same wattage at the box office as the stars of yesteryear.
The Quigley Publishing Company has been reliably compiling a list of Hollywood’s top money-making stars every year since 1932. The annual Quigley Poll is based on the revenue a star’s movies generate - but also on the votes of movie theatre owners on who they know will attract an audience.

Last summer, Quigley’s compiled their all-time top 20 of the past 77 years, carefully weighted by the number of annual lists a star appeared on during their career. It is interesting to see how few of this generation’s A-listers appear in the top score. Even the few who do – Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson – are all on the wrong side of 40.

And the all-time box office big-hitter? John Wayne, a man who appeared in over 150 films but only won one Academy Award, for True Grit.

Quigley’s All-Time Top Money-Making Stars:
1. John Wayne: He became a star in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and their partnership endured over 20 further successful movies. Wayne was consolidated as an icon of American masculinity, notwithstanding the variety of hairpieces he wore from the late 1940s onwards to hide his balding pate.

2. Clint Eastwood: Eastwood was another star embedded on the public consciousness by the western thanks to his role in the TV series Rawhide from 1959-64. Shortly afterwards he transferred that recognition to the big screen and created an unbeatable niche as the tough guy anti-hero.

3. Tom Cruise: His break with Paramount Pictures in 2006 and his much-mocked interest in Scientology was heralded as the beginning of the end for the star system. That same year, however, he still topped Forbes magazines list of 100 most influential celebrities. News just broke in the past week that he is on board for the fourth installment of Mission Impossible – it can’t hurt these days to stay hitched to a franchise that has raked in $1.4bn worldwide.

4. Gary Cooper: He once said that “The general consensus is that I don’t act at all.” Luckily for ‘Coop’, the strong, silent type proved to be very suitable to the westerns (yes, those again) adored by the vast movie-going audiences of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It helped that he nearly always played the good guy.

5. Clark Gable: Even though he had already been nominated twice for an Oscar before Gone With The Wind came along in 1939, Rhett Butler sent him stratospheric in the same way Titanic would anoint Leonardo diCaprio 60 years later. Gable’s appeal was such that he was second only to Shirley Temple in popularity in the 1930s – and she’s the film star who apparently helped pulled America out of the Depression.

6. Bing Crosby: The ultimate crossover star, Crosby reinforced his movie star status by being one of the most successful recording artist for 20 years from the mid-1930s onwards. He was the person who did most to boost GI morale in World War II, according to Yank magazine. As a multimedia artist, he was almost unprecedented and certainly unrivalled.

7. Paul Newman: How to explain the enduring appeal of Old Blue Eyes? Was it his
beauty, his talent, his contrary choice to play loners and outcasts that played against his looks? Whatever it was, when he died in 2008, Kevin Spacey remarked: “An era just ended.”

8. Tom Hanks (tie): Hanks might be more of a powerhouse producer these days, but as an actor he has brought in $3bn in box office receipts. If ever there was a test of star power, it was his ability to seduce audiences to watch him play with a volleyball on a deserted island for the best part of the huge 2000 hit, Castaway.

Bob Hope (tie): Hope had a mutually beneficial screen partnership with best friend Bing Crosby that yielded the seven hugely successful ‘Road’ movies from 1940 to 1962. At that time he began his 18-time stint as host of the Academy Awards and a career in broadcasting: no wonder his name could sell a film or two.

Mel Gibson (tie): Like Tom Cruise, his off-screen antics have tarnished his personal reputation, but for the 13 years during his career when he was a top ten powerhouse, he’s earned his place in the pantheon.

The top twenty is rounded out by: Burt Reynolds, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Julia Roberts, Eddie Murphy, Cary Grant, Abbott & Costello, Harrison Ford, Shirley Temple and James Stewart.

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