When Examples Go Horribly Wrong

About once every seven years, I get bored enough while sitting in a doctor’s office or airplane to open Time Magazine. This week’s edition touted the “10 Ideas that are Changing the World.” It’s a hyperbolic headline if I’ve ever seen one, and more when I got to #3: “The Post-Movie-Star Era”. An interesting hypothesis to be sure, and I have to admit, a very readable article by Time’s Richard Corliss. Of course, interesting doesn’t mean true. I’ll get to Corliss’ nut graf, so we can see what he’s getting at:

“Over the years, almost everything else about movies changed, but one tenet held firm: the name above the title sold tickets. That’s why the top stars could earn $25 million a picture — because they were the surest guarantee of a return on investment.

Except now they’re not. Indeed, we may be in Hollywood’s first poststar era.”

In the story, Corliss quotes a few of 2007’s box office disasters: Lions for Lambs (Redford, Streep, Cruise), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Pitt, C. Affleck), The Good German (Clooney, Blanchett, Maguire) and Charlie Wilson’s War (Hanks, Roberts, Seymour-Hoffman).

It’s easy to point out box office flops, which every year has, but if the point out of the story is that the story is beginning to trump the star in terms of box office success, let’s re-evaluate. This time, let’s not pretend that Tobey Maguire and Daniel Radcliffe aren’t stars — because comic book geeks and children, respectively, have shown during each star’s series of movies that each is deserving of the ‘Star’ title.

Via a Google Search, here were the top 15 non-animated movies at the box office in 2007. Note that I’m not counting animated movies because most of them have stars, but no star is the reason we see an animated movie, as hard as Jim Carrey might try.

Spider-Man 3 (Tobey Maguire)
Transformers (Shia LaBeouf)
Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp)
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)
I am Legend (Will Smith)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Matt Damon)
National Treasure (Nicholas Cage)
300 (Gerard Butler)
Wild Hogs (John Travolta)
Knocked Up (Seth Rogen, Catherine Heigl)
Rush Hour 3 (Jackie Chan)
Juno (Ellen Page)
Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis)
Fantastic Four (Jessica Alba)
American Gangster (Denzel Washington, Russel Crowe)

I’m going to be nice, and say that LaBeouf, Butler, Page, and Rogen/Heigl are not stars. Four. Let’s count superstars now: Depp, Smith, Damon, Cage, Travolta, Willis and Washington/Crowe. Seven. That leaves Maguire, Radcliffe, Chan and Alba as those in-between, all of whom were participants in franchises with prior movies.

So, yeah, that completely disproves Corliss’ theory. So does the fact that the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees, outside of Juno, were as disastrous at the box office in 2007 as any group of nominees in recent memory. The great story of There Will Be Blood didn’t mean big dollars, nor did the characters in No Country for Old Men.

It would be nice to live in a world where the best stories were celebrated with big dollars, but if you ask the few Hollywood executives most concerned with producing good movies more than profitable ones, I think they’d tell you: that’s now how the business works.

Juno is the exception to the rule; sadly enough, it’s not a sign of things to come. For now, money means two things: land a superstar, land a comic book, or both.

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