This week, Vulture released its annual list of the most valuable stars in Hollywood, taking a “scientific”, stats-based approach that factored in everything from box office numbers to likeability. The results had Silver Linings Playbookstar Jennifer Lawrence at the top spot, just ahead of Iron Man himself, Robert Downey, Jr.
In response, Yahoo writer Jordan Zakarin wrote a column arguing that the list is proof that stars in Hollywood are less important today than ever before. Instead, he said it is about franchises, as Lawrence and Downey owe most of their success to movies that had a cult following before they were made (Lawrence to The Hunger Games and Downey to the Marvel universe, which includes the Iron Man movies and The Avengers).
“Lawrence’s biggest role to date has been Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Gamessaga, a massive franchise based on a book with a built-in fan base,” Zakarin wrote in his column. “While she owned the role from the beginning, it isn’t as if the series wouldn’t have been successful without her.”
Zakarin’s case seems to make sense with the limited examples he provides. However, if you look at the broader issue, it becomes obvious that he couldn’t be further from the truth, that actors today are actually more important than ever before.
Particularly when they are in a movie with a “built-in fan base,” as that is anything but a guarantee for success.
Booms and Busts
If you looked at the list of highest-grossing movies of all time, you would say that Zakarin is right. Aside fromAvatar, which is the highest-grossing movie of all time, most of the movies on the list are based off major historical events (Titantic), a comic book (The Avengers), an iconic book (Lord of the Rings), an iconic children’s story (Alice in Wonderland), a popular show (Transformers), a Disney movie (Frozen) or something else that comes with the pre-existing audience he is alluding to.
But then compare that to the list of the biggest movie flops of all time. On that list, you’ll see movies based off major historical events (The Alamo), a comic book (Green Lantern), an iconic book (The 13th Warrior, which was based off of Beowulf), an iconic children’s story (Jack the Giant Slayer, which was based off of Jack and the Beanstock), a popular show (The Lone Ranger), a Disney movie (John Carter) or something else that comes with a pre-existing audience.
Why is this so? Because movies based on something popular generally come with a giant budget. If the movie is good, it can be incredibly successful, because there are a lot of marketing dollars and cool special effects that keep audiences coming. But if it is bad, none of that stuff matters, and it can actually lose a company a lot of money.
Why Stars Matter
The basic premise of 1995’s Cutthroat Island and 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is pretty much the same: pirates sail around, hunt for treasure, get into adventures, etc. The only difference between the two is Cutthroat Island was once named the biggest flop in movie history, losing more than $100 million, while Pirates of the Caribbean was incredibly successful and led to three highly-successful sequels, a video game and a ride.
So what’s the difference between the two?
Pirates probably had better direction and a better supporting cast. But, most important of all, Pirates had Johnny Depp deliver one of his best performances ever as Captain Jack Sparrow, while Cutthroat Island had a fish-out-of-water Geena Davis.
Let’s start with the positive. Many critics basically had the same thing to say aboutThe Curse of the Black Pearl: an otherwise-bad movie saved by an amazing performance by Depp, who based his character on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
“And, egad, it’s a pirate flick – a genre as doomed as the titular Black Pearl or Gilliam’s quest to adapt Don Quixote,” wrote Time Out in their review of the film, a common theme in many of the film’s reviews. “Yet our Depp invests this overfed, action-tractioned swashbuckler with a voluptuous wit and spry spontaneity it surely doesn’t deserve.”
Davis, conversely, certainly can act in dramas, starring in popular movies likeLeague of their Own and Thelma and Louise. But her performance as an action star (or, more specifically, a pirate action star) was generally chided by critics.
“Towering over many of the men and strapping in her feminized pirate gear, Davis nonetheless seems similarly out of her element, with virtually all of her quirky appeal neutralized by the single-mindedly determined, straight-ahead demands of her action-hero role,” Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote in his review of Cutthroat Island, which was typical of many about the film.
The Bigger Business Lesson
Zakarin’s column is a classic case of strategic examples. Basing a movie off of a popular book or a popular movie or a historical event is no guarantee for success. Instead, it just amplifies the movie’s result, as it is likely going to end up as a major win or a massive failure.
In fact, with movie budgets larger-than-ever today, finding the right actor is more important than ever. And it isn’t just about finding someone with talent, either, or otherwise the Davis hire would have worked. It is about finding the right fit for the role, like Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.
That’s a lesson for all businesses as well: people matter. No matter how much money, how much marketing, how much “lipstick on the pig”; if you don’t have the right people in place, you are headed for a crash.
But if you do, you could just unlock the next Katniss Everdeen.
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