The industry is learning quickly – more quickly than much of the media – that there is IP that, handled well, leads to explosive financial results. But not all IP. Not even most IP.
Every single film that has opened to more than $78 million domestically has been IP-driven. The problem is that most IP-driven films these days are so expensive that they NEED to open to more than $75 million just to be within range of “successful.”
So we are back to the start of the same old process that has gripped Hollywood since the studio system broke up in the late 1960s. Take the idea, polish it up, get excited… then feel it’s necessary to add a real live movie star to prime the pump.
The mythology of the end of movie stars is a popular media meme. What writers see is the lowered value of the stars of their youths – Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others – and no replacement for the remarkable runs these actors had in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But they are missing big pieces of the factual puzzle.
1. The runs of this group of stars was an anomaly, not a norm. The rise of the $20 million opening star was driven by front-loading box office to opening weekend. These actors were the most popular of their time. The math changed around them, they didn’t change the math. And then the math changed again.
2. Human movie stars still open a significant number of movies based heavily on their popularity… arguably the same number of movies as in the 00s, 90s and 80s.
3. Massive openings are a function of remade CG-driven genres and franchises. They represent 100% of the openings over $78 million. There is not a single case of a primarily actor-driven film opening over $78 million. This doesn’t devalue the actors who appear in massive movies/franchises. They add something tangible. But they aren’t (with a few very specific exceptions) driving openings. But the mega-movies are not replacing actor-driven films, but have created their own exclusive category.
What inspired me to write this piece is observing that there is a clear trend of including “movie stars” in big IP-driven movies that hadn’t previously seen the need. In some cases, “movie stars” are characters from other IP-driven movies (see: Marvel). Regardless, the need to boost value of already steroid-muscular IP CG extravaganzas with familiar, beloved actors (some of whom only have real financial power in specific roles) is back.
But before we get into the current situation, let’s look back at how we got here, beginning with the question, “What is a movie star?”
In the modern box office era, Movie Stars are defined by how well they open movies. That is the job. They are bait to launch the film. In the best careers, there is the sense that those stars also have the best taste, choosing projects that not only open, but play well, leading to big grosses. ($100m domestic used to be the border for a blockbuster. This has also changed. )
For me, the idea of the modern box office movie star really starts in earnest in 1993. Why?
Eight of the Top Ten openers in 1993 were star driven. One reboot (of a TV show), but no sequels…
Ford – The Fugitive – $23.8m
Williams – Mrs. Doubtfire – $20.5m
Cruise – The Firm – $25.4m
Hanks – Sleepless in Seattle – $17.3m
Roberts – The Pelican Brief – $16.9m
Stallone – Cliffhanger – $16.2m
Schwarzenegger – The Last Action Hero – $15.3m
Eastwood – In The Line of Fire – $15.3m
Also notable about 1993, Jurassic Park. The Spielberg effects extravaganza was the top opener of the year with $47 million… almost double the #2 (The Firm).
It is a myth that Hollywood was full of originals or fresh ideas in those “good ‘ol days.” 1993 is interesting because of all those originals. In both 1991 and 1992, the Top 5 openers were all sequels or reboots. In 1990, 4 of the Top 5 were sequels or reboots (Total Recall was the newbie). In 1989, the Top 2-6 were sequels and the #1 was… Batman.
Let’s unpack this. 1991 was the first year ever with five $20m openers (4 sequels and The Addams Family).
1994 was the first year with more than five $20 million openers. There were 7. Four were from stars Cruise/Pitt, Schwarzenegger, Hanks, and Ford. The other 3 were The Flintstones, The Mask, Star Trek: Generations, all three starring or based on TV talent/shows.
In 1995, we saw nine $20 million openings. Six had major movie openers: Jim Carrey in a Batman movie, Jim Carrey in a sequel, Tom Hanks animated, Hanks going to space, Bruce Willis sequel, Kevin Costner in Waterworld. The other three were non-movie-star-driven films: a Bond, Cargo, and Mortal Kombat.
That was 22 years ago and from here in 2017, you can see the clear bifurcation over years. And you can see the evolution of the $20 million opening as the standard for a major opening movie star.
1996 had 12 $20m openings. Three cartoons (if you include Space Jam) and a live-action adaptation of an animated film (101 Dalmatians). Also, 5 movie-star openings by Cruise, Gibson, Murphy, Cage/Connery, and Schwarzenegger. (Carrey was just under a $20m launch with a movie called a bomb, The Cable Guy). Twister & Star Trek. And on top, Independence Day, which made a movie star of Will Smith, another TV guy who made the giant leap successfully and embodied the movie star ideal.
1997: 16 $20m openings – 9 movie star openings – Smith, Clooney, Ford, Carrey, Williams, Cage, Cage/Travolta, Roberts, Foster.
1998: 17 $20m openings – 8 movie star openings – Sandler, Willis, Gibson, Carrey, Hanks, Murphy, Williams, Smith
1999 – 22 $20m openings – 14 movie star openings – Myers, Sandler, Roberts, Smith, Willis, Judd, Travolta, Roberts, Hanks, Cruise, Gibson, Schwarzenegger, Murphy, Connery/Zeta-Jones
$20 million was (and is) the standard. Actors are making $20 million and more. As our starting point, 1993, was a few years after the start of sell-through VHS, 1999 is three years after the launch of sell-thru DVD and the massive revenue was now flowing.
In 2000, the next wave of change arrived. There were still 11 or 12 movie-star-driven openers, but just three in the Top 10 openings of the year, both in sequels (Mission: Impossible II, The Klumps and The Perfect Storm, which was as much as the wave as the Clooney).
However, the IP was clearly becoming a new kind of movie star. The Grinch, X-Men, Charlie’s Angels, Gladiator…
Now we’re up to 2001… Top 10 openers… not one true movie star opening in the group and the only two you could really argue to be star-driven were Hannibal, a Ridley Scott non-sequel-sequel to Silence of the Lambs that had Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. But even then, these two stars was playing very specific, iconic roles (one of style, one of spandex).
You could go 13 top openings straight before you hit the overtly talent-driven Ocean’s Eleven.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Planet of the Apes
The Mummy Returns
Rush Hour 2
Jurassic Park III
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
American Pie 2
The Fast and the Furious
We were now into the CGI era, which leapt again in 2002 with Spider-Man, the first $100 million opening, and the next movie version of “you will believe a man can fly.”
Movie Stars, as we knew them in the previous decade, could not be expected to open a $100 million movie based on their audience relationship.
In fact, the numbers are pretty remarkable when you look at them. Try these on… 68. 69. 66, 62, 62, 77, 65, 77, 60, 69
Those numbers match Carrey, Jolie, Pitt, Downey, DiCaprio, Smith, Cruise, Hanks, Gibson, Damon, aka the 10 individual movie stars who have had the highest domestic openings outside of a supersuit or animation or a franchise bigger than themselves and those high openings.
Bruce Almighty, Maleficent, World War Z, Sherlock Holmes, Inception, I Am Legend, War of the Worlds, The DaVinci Code, Signs, The Bourne Ultimatum. Mostly films with a lot more going on than a movie star… but let’s give them that.
You wondering about Clooney? Bullock? They share Gravity as best domestic opener at $56 million. Ben Affleck? Pearl Harbor, $59 million. Scarlett Johansson? $44 million for Lucy.
And there is an outlier, though it takes a little work to get there… Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, which was in limited for three holiday weekends before going wide in January to $89 million.
But… there is (for now) a “pure” star power ceiling that is undeniable.
If you look at the box office with that star ceiling as a given, you naturally see the numbers differently. I count 61 movies that opened between $40 million and $70 million in the last 5 years (2012-2016). Of those, 16 were sold, first and foremost, as movie star vehicles (not counting sequels or otherwise established franchises). Jolie, Pitt, Damon, Tatum/Hill, Bullock/Clooney, Cruise, Smith, Johnson, Wahlberg, Damon, DiCaprio, Rogen, McCarthy/Wiig, Johansson, Washington.
I count another 49 star-driven openers in those five years between $20 million and $40 million.
So, that’s 65 star-driven openings between $20m & $70m in the last five years… or 13 each year.
In 2002 (to grab a sample year), I count 14 star-driven openings between $20m and $70m. In 2003, I count 11. In 2001, I count 9.
So are “movie stars” a dead idea or have we simply changed the economic expectations and possibilities having found the tools that not only lead to much bigger openings in the US, but around the world?
I say the latter.
But the reason I sat down to write is another phenomenon I noticed, beginning with Marvel. Last summer’s Captain America: Civil War co-starred not only Iron Man, but a bunch of Avengers and some new characters who are heading to individual films. But this really started with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which added Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. This second Cap-led film certainly benefited from Avengers as well, but it also had more star power and almost doubled its worldwide gross. The third Cap film, Civil War, loaded with Avengers, grew another 61%.
This summer’s Spider-Man has almost as much Iron Man in the trailers as Spider-Man. Guardians 2 adds Stallone and Kurt Russell. Thor 3? The Hulk comes along. We haven’t seen Black Panther materials yet, but will an Avenger or two show up there, as Black Panther showed up in Civil War?
Marvel has realized that they can boost openings (and thus, the overall gross) by throwing established characters at their standalone films. And what are those characters? Movie Stars.
With due respect to the Avengers actors… few of them can open a movie to big numbers without the suit on. They are a specific kind of movie star.
It’s not just Marvel. Did they need a major movie star to open The Mummy in 1999? No. $43m opening. Third best of the year, best non-sequel. Who is the lead in 2017? Tom Cruise.
Baywatch is not only a raunchy comedy with a deeply familiar footprint, but it stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. (Biggest non F&F/animated opening for Dwayne? $57m. Director Seth Gordon’s best opening? $35 million. Both will hope to set new records with this IP-led film.)
We have a fifth Pirates… which has a whole parade of new and old characters, but is still Depp-endent. Disney would love to stop paying Depp mega-dollars for these films. But is the IP the IP without him?
The Apes series added Woody Harrelson, who co-starred in the Hunger Games movies, which opened over $100m. (Apes’ best is $73m.)
Even Transformers, whose stars are CGed, is keeping Mark Wahlberg (star power added in the last film) and adding Sir Anthony Hopkins and Hunger Games co-star Stanley Tucci.
The fear – particularly in the media – has been this sense that the machines are taking over. But the CG is not your enemy. This summer, there are few movies chasing the dragon without a legit movie star or a raise of the ante with a strong second-tier opener.
Two of the big summer 2017 films are going out without traditional movie stars, but are from tip-top-tier directors who are the stars of their movies: Sir Ridley’s Alien: Covenant and Sir-to-be Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Baby Driver is a much smaller movie, but is also director-led from beloved Edgar Wright.
That leaves King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Wonder Woman, Valerian, and The Dark Tower as the four non-star summer movies. And all three are seen as big risks.
Dark Tower has McConaughey, but the question of whether he really helps open a big film (aside from his talent) is hanging out there.
Arthur is Guy Ritchie and without Downey as Sherlock, his best opening is $13.4 million.
Wonder Woman is DC brand… and for all the screaming, Green Lantern opened to $53 million, so it will be interesting to see what the standard for success is there.
Valerian is the new passion explosion from Luc Besson… which feels a lot like his passion explosion The Fifth Element, which had a big star in Bruce Willis, but still opened to $17 million, twentieth best for 1997, mid-range by that era and Bruce Willis’ standards. (Personally, I consider Besson an auteur on the level of a Scott or Nolan, but I can’t argue that he is widely seen as such in the U. S. at this point.)
Lots of details about this summer’s films, but to the point… all four of the large scale films without major box office stars have someone on the money side wishing they had found a spot for a big movie star or two for protection about now. I’m sure Besson isn’t thinking about that… but you can be sure that STX is. If DeHaan and Delevingne break out into box office stars with this film, the win would be even greater (like Guardians). But in these last months before release, trying to sell an action space comedy with Emma Stone and Logan Lerman might seem more attractive to a marketer.
Maybe the producers of Dark Tower see something mighty happening and see the franchise working without the extra distraction. Very possible. But WB isn’t going to be happy if Wonder Woman opens to $60 million. And King Arthur just smells of death.
But the biggest thing is getting the good people in the media to change how they approach the conversation. It is factually unreasonable to expect any movie star to open any movie that isn’t led with IP goodness to over $75 million. Really, anything over $50 million is extraordinary. $20 million is still a solid standard for movie stardom. And there are as many of those as ever.