A few weeks back I was looking at the schedule of my local art house theater and noticed a movie I hadn’t heard about: Sound of Violence, or Conductor in major markets. For some reason, the blurb mentions James Jagger being part of the cast. He is actually only third billed, but because of his parentage (Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall), he is still the one used in marketing. And his parents were specifically mentioned as well.
The thing is that the two actors above him in the credits both have a much more distinguished careers, but because they lack the right surename, apparently they can’t be used to sell a movie. Not that they are exactly household names either. I don’t think I’ve seen Jasmin Savoy Brown in anything, but I have seen Lili Simmons in Bone Tomahawk, which has apparently found an audience in the last few years, and the third season of True Detective.
Here’s the thing: When I read a blurb and see that they feel that they need to use a “selling point” of mentioning a name that doesn’t actuaally even mean very much, I just automatically conclude that the movie must be shit. When I see that his role is smaller than that of the women… yeah, that’s not a good sign either.
On the other hand, a star is often the big selling point of movies in general. Sure, franchises can get away without paying out huge amounts of money to a star, because the franchise sells itself, but in order to be able to do that, you need to also kickstart the franchise somehow. Marvel did this with Robert Downey, jr.
Marvel was in a big trouble back in those days, so they took a huge risk with Iron Man and rushed it into production. Even the script wasn’t ready quite yet. So, what happened was that RDJ and Jon Favreau would often workshop what was going to happen on the day. Weirdly enough, all of this worked. But there’s the thing: RDJ was not only the perfect person to play the part, but he also brought so much more into the movie through his creativity.
He wasn’t really a star at that point. Sure, he had done plenty of movies like Zodiac, Scanner Darkly, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and so forth, but he was still more of a character actor than a draw even when starring in these movies. We can also see that even after Iron Man, he has not been a very consistent moneymaker. Sure, the two Sherlock Holmes movies did well, but otherwise his movies outside of Marvel seem to be pretty forgettable and Dolittle was pretty much a flop (even if you put some of the blame on the pandemic).
Here’s another example: Star Wars. You could argue that Alec Guinness was a star and Peter Cushing definitely still has a cult following, but they hadn’t even really worked that much outside of the UK, so they were only able to reach a limited audience. Still, that movie is one of the biggest hits of all time, probably top 5 when taking inflation into account, and still in the top 20 even without the inflation. Sure, Mark Hamill had done plenty of TV work, but mostly voice work or one-off appearances, Carrie Fisher had done a TV project with her mom (Debbie Reynolds) as a teen, but was one of hundreds of kids, and appeared in a minor role in Shampoo, and Harrison Ford, being older than the other two, had a lot of experience, but not a lot of major roles either. He did a lot of TV work and some minor roles in movies.
How about Titanic? Leo already had an Oscar Nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and starred in Basketball Diaries as well as Romeo + Juliet, but was in no way a household name. Kate Winslet’s career was pretty similar with one nice starring role in Heavenly Creatures. Again, the stars probably weren’t that big of a draw, even if Leo had some following among teen girls.
Which leads nicely into Avatar… This movie has a lot of familiar faces. We have Sam Worthington, Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Wes Studi and CCH Pounder. The closest thing to a star was easily Sigourney Weaver, but she has been a victim of various prejudices. Zoe Saldana was on the rise. She had done plenty of movies, but admittedly I wasn’t aware of most of them with the exceptions of Star Trek and whatever Pirates of the Caribbean movie she appeared in.
Based on this, it would seem that you don’t need stars to have a hit. What you need is the right person for the job. We could go deeper. Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, Jaws, ET and so forth. It would seem that director is much more important.
Still, here’s a chart of the best paid actors of 2020 (according to Statista):
(Note: This does not include actresses, but the only actress who would have made the list was Sofia Vergara, who would be at the ninth spot just after Will Smith… I don’t like putting men and women into separate lists, but this does give me extra data and I was interested in seeing Jackie Chan on the list as well.)
My first question upon seeing this list was: How does Mark Wahlberg get paid that much? He is very bland and just… uninteresting. Would anyone be excited to go out and see a Mark Wahlberg film? Does his face on the Uncharted trailer make you want to see that movie? Does anyone believe his inclusion in the film is going to make the movie better in any way? Sure, he’s been in some good movies over the years, but Three Kings wasn’t a huge hit and if it was, it definitely wasn’t because of him. Still, he is getting paid huge amounts of money (although some of that is from producer roles).
I sort of get paying Dwayne Johnson, because he is pretty much the opposite of Wahlberg. He is charismatic and brings something to the movies he stars in. Take any Wahlberg role. Could you imagine someone else in that role? Well, yes. In all cases. Doing this with The Rock is much more difficult, because he has cultivated both a unique persona and physique to form a unique image for himself. You could probably find someone who would deliver a similar performance, but I don’t think people would react similarly to someone like Jason Momoa in those roles.
Then there’s Ryan Reynolds. Similarly to Johnson, he has been able to make himself a larger than life figure. From my point of view, he adds a lot to a movie when allowed to be himself, basically when he is producing, but when someone else tries to harness that energy, it just doesn’t work, but at the same time, he probably works for cheaper when doing his own thing, so investing in him as actor only just seems weird, but I guess pointing at Deadpool is going to carry his career going forwards for a few years before the financiers notice that maybe things aren’t going that well (and since these projects take years, many projects have already been greenlit by that time).
On the other hand, we have people like Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage. They used to be big stars, but have somehow devolved into cashing checks for low budget movies, where they don’t have to do much work besides turning up. Sure, Cage still has (quite glorious) moments in movies, when he is actually motivated, but mostly when he is brought into projects these days, he isn’t brought for his skills, but rather his name. Does it work? Apparently. There’s so many of these movies that there must be enough data to show that if you are making cheap movies to cash in fast, having that one name is beneficial enough make it worth your while, even if that big name is probably pretty destructive from quality point of view, because they just aren’t interested.
That is the true power of stardom: People will see your name and that will make others interested in whatever that movie is. If you are looking at a bunch of covers and one of them has that one guy, who used to be in good movies in your youth, you are probably going to pay that specific movie more attentio than the other clutter, even if that one person might have actually just made the whole thing worse with his or her presence, because they eat so much of the budget.
There seems to be a scrumble to get these names. Netflix is putting a lot of money into forgettable movies just to make sure they have access to them. At the same time, the crews are getting shafted, so to say. They used to make money from residuals, such as box office, TV rights, DVD sales and whatever, but as streaming services don’t pay these, the crews are put into a bad position.
I don’t know how much this affects people at this level, but there is some proof that the more you are paid, the less motivated you are to do a job. This might even affect these stars. Why would they try, if they are there just for the money? If they are bought just for their name, why would they care?
Not that the studio really cares either. They just want something they can sell. It’s actually kind of weird that studios are trying to build franchises, but are also very uninterested in making anything other than something easily marketable. Sure, you can make some money on the first installment, but it will just fall of quite fast.