What does it take to get a movie
made in Hollywood? The optimistic answer would be “talent.” But
the actual answer is much more straightforward: a name actor.
Or, more specifically, an “A-List” actor. Without the commitment of an actor whose
name appears on a relatively short list of “bankable” stars, producers
are finding it increasingly difficult to find financing for their
movies. And with salaries for top actors skyrocketing, the amount
of money that producers need to raise is increasing, too.
But what does the attachment of an A-List actor
actually guarantee a project—other than a recognizable name to
put on the poster? Take a look at the box office totals of just
a sampling of today’s most in-demand actors and you’ll find the
answer: very little.
While, collectively, it’s the members of Hollywood’s
A-List that generate the most revenue at the box office, on an
individual basis, many of today’s biggest stars just don’t deliver
the buck—at least
“The best way to think about big-name stars is as brands,” advises
Bruce Nash of The Numbers. “And as brands, they have some advantages.
For example, in the same way that Coke can easily introduce a new
soft drink, Tom Cruise helps get action movies made. But that doesn’t
guarantee success: if Coke brings out something that doesn’t taste
very good, no one will drink it for long.”
Making movies that make money is a crapshoot, and there are very
few actors who can significantly increase your odds. So why, then,
would you throw $20 million at a person who is just as likely to
help you make The Adventures of Pluto Nash as he
is Shrek? No offense to Eddie Murphy (an A-List actor).
But what the numbers tell us is the only three guarantees in this
business are death, taxes and Tom Hanks.
“Tom Hanks exhibits a canny ability to pick the best directors,” says
Howard Price, senior editor of The Trades. “Relying neither on
created franchises like Austin Powers or films with built-in
audiences like Lord of the Rings, Hanks has continued to
outpace, on a box office average, many stars with more years of
experience and (one might think) even greater name recognition.”
It warrants mentioning that the A-List itself
is a concept that defies all logic as it pertains to the craft.
In fact, there exists one school of thought that says more often
than not, A-List actors attained their status not by merit, but
by dumb luck—by stumbling
into the right role and clinging to the cork just as it’s jammed
into the bottle of lightning.
Of course the A-List contains its share of
quality actors (Denzel Washington, Anthony Hopkins); but it also
boasts a fair amount of has-beens, frauds and burn-outs (albeit
attractive ones). No matter, like the universe, the A-List just
making room for the latest up-and-comer to climb aboard. Even harder
than getting there, though, is getting off. Like an invisible tether,
when an A-List actor strays too far into obscurity (or indies),
something always seems to snap them back. Keanu Reeves is a perfect
example. Once you’re on the A-List, it seems, it takes no less
than an atomic blast (or a starring role in The Shipping
News) to knock you off.
But who you choose is not the only variable
in forecasting whether or not your film will be a success. The
director, co-stars and genre all matter, too. What follows is
a set of safe practices for producers to adhere to when attempting
to make a profitable movie, based on the box office numbers of
25 A-List actors over the last 10 years. If critical success
or Oscar glory are all you’re after, stop reading here. Just
remember, there are no guarantees in Hollywood and their are
exceptions to every “rule.” Ultimately,
it’s not just about landing Mel Gibson—it’s about factoring Mel
Gibson into the right film equation.
Casting Rules for Hollywood Producers
1. A “dramatic” actor can make the switch to
comedy much easier than a comedian can make the switch to drama.
Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro are two examples of top-notch
dramatic actors who have also found success in comedic roles
(As Good As It Gets, Meet
The Parents, Analyze This). Conversely, Jim Carrey,
Adam Sandler and Mike Myers are examples of comedians who have
failed at the transition to drama (The Majestic, 54, Punch-Drunk
Love). It seems even a funny leopard cannot change his
2. Some actor/director tandems are gold.
Other teamings should be avoided at all costs. Best Bets: Tom
Cruise and Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky); Jim Carrey and Tom
Shadyac (Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, Ace Ventura);
Jim Carrey and the Farrelly brothers (Me, Myself & Irene, Dumb & Dumber);
Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Pulp
Better Not: Sam Jackson and Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, The
Long Kiss Goodnight) or really anyone and Renny Harlin
(Driven cost $72 million to make and brought back just
over $32 million in the U.S.; Cutthroat Island lost more
than $80 million); Harrison Ford and Sydney Pollack (Random
Hearts, Sabrina); and, the granddaddy of all financially
disastrous actor/director tandems, Jack Nicholson and Sean
Penn (The Pledge, The Crossing Guard) .
3. Two Oscar-winners in one film doesn’t equal a blockbuster. Crimson
Tide (Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington) and About Schmidt (Jack
Nicholson, Kathy Bates) were hits, but this is rare for the Oscar-Winning Duo
scenario. Films like Insomnia (Al Pacino, Robin Williams), Men of
Honor (Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Adaptation (Nicolas
Cage, Meryl Streep) were only modestly successful at the box office. If you
want more examples, Pay it Forward (Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt) and Wonder
Boys (Michael Douglas, Francis McDormand) also fizzled quickly.
4. Two Oscar-winning actors plus an Oscar-winning
director won’t help you at the box office, either. Most recently,
Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins and
Nicole Kidman, proved the futility of this concoction—even with
the added punch of Oscar nominee Gary Sinise.
5. If you must have an actor direct your
film, pick Ron Howard.
Ron Howard has had some major hits in the past 10 years (How
the Grinch Stole Christmas , Apollo 13) and rarely
does two turkeys in a row. Clint Eastwood is a good alternative,
as roughly half of his films, including this year’s Mystic
River, make decent money .
After these two, the pickins get pretty thin. Even with a crew
of his A-List friends behind him, George Clooney couldn’t fill
the seats for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. (Maybe he
should think about trading in Brad Pitt for Tom Hanks.) Robert
Redford is bad news (The Legend of Baggar Vance) unless
he’s directing himself (The Horse Whisperer), in which case
you’re in good shape. Kevin Costner should generally be avoided,
especially if you’re doing a film about a post-apocalyptic civil
servant of some sort—or a fish-man.
6. Westerns are different. If you’re making
a western and you can’t get Clint to star in it, Costner is acceptable… but
only if he agrees to direct it! Dances with Wolves and Open Range made
money; Wyatt Earp did not.
7. If you’re making a science fiction
film, you could do a lot worse than Jeff Goldblum. One of lessons
learned from Battlefield
Earth (besides ‘Don’t make Battlefield Earth‘) is that
it takes more than an A-List actor to save a crashing spaceship.
Sci fi films are hard to make successfully unless you’re George
Lucas. Jeff Goldblum has appeared in some of the genre’s highest
grossing of all time, including Jurassic Park I and II,
and Independence Day.
8. Avoid making biographies of well-known
people. Jim Carrey (Man on the Moon), Will Smith (Ali) and Anthony Hopkins
(Nixon) couldn’t pull it off. If you have to make
a biography, make it about an unknown person (Julia Roberts scored
as Erin Brockovich), or get the actual subject to star (Howard
Stern in Private Parts).
9. John Cusack is always a good last-minute replacement.
His star may have shone a lot brighter a decade ago, but Cusack
is one well-seasoned actor whose films, for the most part, don’t
lose money. 10. If you’re in it to make money, always bet
on Tom Hanks! Regardless of the genre, if you can’t land Tom Hanks
because he’s working on a project with Steven Spielberg or a Spielberg
clone like Robert Zemeckis, you’re better off passing altogether—unless
you’ve won consistently in Vegas. His success rate is staggering:
he hasn’t missed since The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990.
All things being equal (and not taking genre
into consideration) your overall best bets are: Tom Hanks: Unfortunately,
he’ll probably be too busy with Spielberg on some WWII/NASA project.
Jim Carrey: Keep him away from drama and biographies and
you’re likely to find box office gold. Tom Cruise: Just keep
him away from Paul Thomas Anderson and any newly discovered Stanley
Kevin Spacey: A couple of hits—and plenty of ghastly misses—in
10 years. Bruce Willis: His career consists of high peaks and long,
cavernous valleys. M. Night Shyamalan has apparently moved on. Anthony
Hopkins: One of the finest actors of our time, but unless he’s
playing Hannibal Lecter, the masses don’t care. Nicolas Cage: Too
many bad films that didn’t make money. Jennifer Lopez: Even her
successful films have been only modest successes, while her flops
have been measurable. Gigli could go down as one of the
biggest disasters of all time—and only time will tell if she can
escape its gravity. John Travolta: It’s quite possible that this
time the star has dimmed for good. MM