There is a funny little thing actors sometimes have to do that I call the “Please like me again!” press tour. It’s the this-time-will-be-different-I-swear dance of promoting a new movie after your last movie bombed, the ultimate game of a humbled millionaire looking up at us with Puss N’ Butts cat eyes and declaring, “Can you really stay mad at little ole me?” Think George Clooney promoting The Peacemaker a year after Batman & Robin or Tom Cruise donning a fatsuit and dancing for us like a trained monkey in Tropic Thunder after his various Scientology-related troubles.
That’s Will Smith right now with Focus. Just like anyone else, the one-time megastar has had his ups and downs, suffering a particularly bad three-movie stretch at the turn of the new century with Wild Wild West (1999), The Legend of Baggar Vance (2000), and Ali (2001), only one of which even managed to eclipse its production budget. But then he rebounded with successive box office hits Men in Black 2, Bad Boys 2, and I, Robot.
He now finds himself in a similar position, licking his wounds after 2013’s laughably bad After Earth, a movie which underperformed so significantly ($60m domestic/$243m worldwide against a $130m budget) it was still being discussed months after its release as evidence for why the studio which made it – Sony Pictures – needed a complete overhaul of its leadership. This time, Smith has taken the failure to heart.
While out promoting Focus (read my review here), he has struck a self-reflective chord, admitting, “After the failure of After Earth, a thing got broken in my mind,” meaning it caused him to re-evaluate his self-made identity as the guy who puts out big movies in the summer, dating back to 1996’s Independence Day. He’s taking a different approach going forward, describing how when he went into Focus he “completely released the concept of goal orientation and got into path orientation. This moment. This second. These people. This interaction.”
That’s not so much “Please like me again!” as it is “Why do you need to like me? Let’s just all love life together, man. And….now that I’m not trying so hard I’ll be so effortlessly entertaining you’ll come back to see me, right?”
Focus mustered a mere $18.6 million domestic debut this weekend, the lowest inflation-adjusted opening of Smith’s career since 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation, aka, one of his first movies. However, Smith’s new “I’m just trying to have fun making movies” approach likely brings with it an altered set of box office expectations. Focus, after all, cost just $50 million to make, something which Warner Bros. executive VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein was quick to point out, “This was a midrange-budgeted movie, and the strong result reflected that.” Of course, he was also quick to blame the” severely inclement weather in the Midwest and the South.” Damn unpredictable weather patterns.
It could be argued Smith’s star power is still such that the entirety of this opening is due to his appeal. His co-star Margot Robbie can’t be credited with much of the heavy lifting at this point, not with the way the trailers presented her as just the latest hot blonde of the moment, with maybe a scant reference to, “Oh, yeah, she was also in Wolf of Wall Street.” The plot is suitably twisty for a con movie, thus making it kind of hard to explain in ads. So, this was a classic case of “Star + Concept” with more of an emphasis on “Star.” It’s not going to be a smash hit, but after this debut Focus is highly likely to turn a modest profit at the worldwide box office.
The real test of Smith’s star appeal will be this Christmas’ potential awards contender and aptly-titled Concussion about the National Football League’s concussion controversy, and 2016’s Suicide Squad, Warner Bros.’ adaptation of the DC’s supervillains-as-mercenaries comic book.
It’s more than a little weird that Will Smith is even in Suicide Squad, though. People you’ve never heard of before (e.g., Chris Hemsworth, Henry Cavill) or people on the downside of their career (e.g., Robert Downey, Jr.) or character actor-types long overdue for a leading man breakthrough (e.g., Paul Rudd) do comic book movies. Big movie stars don’t do them, though, because they don’t have to.
Smith is supposed to be the last of a dying breed of Denzel Washington-like actors whose name alone can guarantee a comfortable return on investment. These are the guys who make life easier for marketing departments, putting together movie posters which merely need to have two words on it: the star’s last name and the title.
Denzel: The Equalizer.
Smith: I, Robot.
However, this is the age of the brand (Marvel Studios) and comic book movie, sold as “Come see this character you like!” not “Come see this actor you like playing this cool character.” Suicide Squad is going to have it both ways, pitching us “Come see Will Smith in a comic book movie” as well as come see “Harley Quinn played by that sexy blonde from Focus and Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Joker played by the Jesus-looking dude from Dallas Buyer’s Club.”
Really, putting Will Smith into Suicide Squad is an old-school move made by a risk-averse studio which wants some kind of box office insurance for the gamble they’re taking, like how Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson were brought in to prop up Superman and Batman respectively. The same can be said for casting Ben Affleck as Batman, picking him up after his comeback was seemingly complete with The Town and Argo. However, those are the exceptions in the current film economy. More often than not, it is not the actor who carries the franchise but instead the franchise that carries the actor. As the New York Times explained last year:
The six major studios are releasing about 30 percent fewer movies than they did seven years ago, and they have largely narrowed their focus to expensive concept projects or franchises based on existing intellectual property — comic books, young-adult novels, older movies — that can be rebooted and sold to passionate pre-existing audiences around the world. Because the American movie market now makes up less than a third of global box-office receipts, studios tend to favor projects featuring explosions, car chases and doomsday scenarios — a universal language of violence that translates easily in China, India, Brazil and Europe.
This has crippled the once-thriving star system which saw actors commanding $20 million in up front salaries plus 15-20% of the gross profits. This was the system which turned Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Demi Moore, and Julia Roberts into multi-millionaires. Their name alone could open a movie, and they were very aware of that, demanding and usually getting final approval over script, director, casting, marketing, where their name would fall in the credits in relation to the other star. They often even got final-cut approval.
That’s on top of the many, many bonus perks, such as restrictions on film scheduling, studio-paid personal and entourage jet travel, personal gyms, 24/7 trainers/nutritionists, etc. If you wanted Jack Nicholson you knew that it was going to be a nightmare if you filmed during the NBA season because he would not film on the nights when there was an LA Laker’s home game to attend. If you wanted Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, or Julia Roberts you knew you had to give them private jets, often more than one to accommodate overflow members of their entourage.
It worked because business was booming, with year-to-year box office going up every year from 1993 to 2004, and it’s not like the studios were models of fiscal responsibility. At one point, the co-head of Columbia Pictures gave not just his girlfriend a cushy, high-level production job despite a complete lack of qualification; he also put the girlfriend’s young daughter on salary. Of course, that guy lost his job when his many bad decisions ran the studio into the ground, and the stars lost their pampered lives when the studios realized it made no sense to pay Julia Roberts $10 million to be in Mary Reilly when Mary Reilly only ended up making $12 million worldwide.
Time and time again throughout the decade into the new millennium the stars and their exorbitant salaries/demands faltered while an unproven action star like Keanu Reeves and a relative unknown like Sandra Bullock could turn 1994’s Speed into a phenomenon, a collection of also-rans and Jeff Goldblum helped Fox practically print money with 1996’s Independence Day, a special effect was the real star over the likes of Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in 96’s wildly successful Twister, and two unknowns turned 1997’s Titanic into the biggest film of all time.
Of course, surprise hits like those are the things that create movie stars, with Sandra Bullock and Leonardo DiCaprio emerging from that particular run of 90s blockbusters to persist into today as two of the highest-paid actors around. Will Smith wasn’t getting paid crazy amounts of money for Independence Day or Men In Black (1997), but by the time Men in Black 2 (2002) came around he demanded $20 million plus 20% of the profits. He could ask for that because he had been able to grow his stardom over those first two big hits.
And Harry Potter happened.
And The Dark Knight and Iron Man happened.
And then Marvel Studios realized it could simply replace Eric Bana as the Hulk with Edward Norton and no one would mind.
And then Terrance Howard asked for more money to be in Iron Man 2, and they dropped him like a bad habit, replacing him with Don Cheadle, again proven correct that no one would ultimately care about the change. They did it again with Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, and now they’re tossing Andrew Garfield aside to create a brand-new Spider-Man with an all-new continuity, set to premiere just two years after the last Spider-Man which was itself a reboot of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man which had only been dead for 4 years.
Point being: The film star has become replaceable, and the cost of doing business for up-and-comers is to work for cheap in exchange for huge global exposure and a kickstart on your career. You parlay that exposure into film stardom which you then parlay into endorsement deals to give you the necessary financial freedom to eventually return to soul-enrichening work on the stage, in indie movies or on TV.
This isn’t really working out the way it used to. Chris Hemsworth isn’t a star because he’s Thor. Since playing that role, he has two box office bombs, one actually well-liked (Rush), the other not (Blackhat). Chris Evans’ most notable film outside of Captain America, Snowpiercer, was mostly a VOD-release. Our new Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, failed in his second effort to re-launch a franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and his rom-com with Reese Witherspoon, This Means War, did just okay, not great. Even Robert Downey, Jr.’s appeal has limits, as although he was briefly holding down two franchises, Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, he’s now struggling to open an awards contender he actually produced with his wife, The Judge. Of course, he’s already won because he proved so indispensible to the Marvel Cinematic Universe they had to pay up, giving him $50 million for The Avengers and probably so much for any future appearances that they just resorted to backing up trash trucks filled with cash into his driveway.
While the old star system continues to falter in the States it’s proving surprisingly resilient overseas, where actors can still help get movies made or turned into profitable hits through name recognition alone. However, with such a radical shift over the past couple of decades from star-driven vehicles to brand/intellectual property-driven vehicles there is a sense that as we watch one of the last great film stars like Will Smith start to falter there may not be anyone groomed to replace him, at least not one who will emulate his success because that was a success achieved in a very different era.
If you look at The Hollywood Reporter’s list of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood not a single one of them (e.g., Angelina Jolie, Dwayne Johnson, Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Mark Wahlberg) is new and seemingly half of them make their money from endorsement deals (i.e., George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones).
There was once a point in film history where the studios practically owned the actors. Then the federal government put a stop to that.
Then there was a period, after much uncertainty, where the actors had all the leverage. That naturally grew to such a level of excess that the studios looked for ways to wrestle back control, and the era of the property-as-star was the answer to all their prayers while also being a film star’s nightmare.
Now, a recent failure has a former giant like Will Smith re-evaluating the meaning of success, pledging to be more present and enjoy the films he makes rather than sweating the opening weekend numbers. That’s certainly a healthier mindset, one which the younger generation seems to have already adopted, allowing themselves more creative freedom. Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, and Shailene Woodley, for example, seem more willing to experiment with the type of films they want to make, McCarthy going surprisingly dark with Tammy or sweet and sincere in St. Vincent, Woodley doing an indie no one really sees like White Bird in a Blizzard, etc. Kristen Stewart has gone out of her way to choose challenging films post-Twilight, and Daniel Radcliffe has turned into a genre-hopping fiend (The Woman in Black, What If, Horns, Swiss Army Man). That’s at least more interesting than an age when we watched Will Smith follow-up Independence Day and Men in Black with Wild Wild West.
This Weekend’s Actual Box Office Top 10 Totals (2/27-3/1)
1. Focus (Opening Weekend)
- Production Budget=$50m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$18.6m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$12.2m
- Worldwide Debut=$30.8m
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
- Production Budget=$81m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$11.8m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$25.8m
- Current Domestic/International/Worldwide Total=$85.7m/$124.6m/$210.3m
Comic book movies generally cost $175-200m to produce, but there is a lower tier that kind of flies by unnoticed like the Ghost Rider films, Constantine, and Kick-Ass 1 and 2, costing no more than $100m and no less than $30m to make. As a result, there isn’t much really to compare Kingsman to beyond Ghost Rider 2 which cost $57m to make and also came out over President’s Day, back in 2012. It failed to make much of an impression, scoring $51m domestic and $132m worldwide. Even after you adjust for inflation, Kingsman has well eclipsed both of those totals.
3. SpongeBob Movie
- Production Budget=$74m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$10.8m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$14.2m
- Current Domestic/International/Worldwide Total=$139.9m/$96.3m/$236.2m
4. 50 Shades of Grey
- Production Budget=$40m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$10.5m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$36m
- Current Domestic/International/Worldwide Total=$147.3m/$338.4m/$485.7m
After its near 74% drop last weekend, 50 Shades dropped another 51% this weekend. Forbes argued, “In today’s marketplace, the drop is more about having met the majority of the demand as opposed to outright rejection of the product.” That being said, the rate at which this film is dropping is worst than most, such as the rather comparable Fault in Our Stars, indicating the drop at least has a little bit to do with quality.
5. The Lazarus Effect (Opening Weekend)
- Production Budget=$3.3m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$10.2m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Nothing
- Worldwide Debut=$10.2m
The Blumhouse model is to make genre movies for $5 million or less, and then spend the $20 million or $30 million needed to release them in theaters only if they have a shot at selling at least $25 million worth of tickets. It is a deal keyed off of the insane profitability Jason Blum has enjoyed with the Paranormal Activity franchise, and it is a high-risk, high-reward proposition whereby noted directors and actors and crew members will work for next to nothing in exchange for profit participation. The problem is if the movie never comes out those people are left totally screwed, and Universal currently has a stack of completed Blumhouse films it doesn’t know what to do with. The Lazarus Effect, which is commonly regarded as The Flatliners rip-off that then turns into a Pet Semetary rip-off halfway through, stars notables like Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Mark Duplass, and Evan Peters (Quicksilver from Days of Future Past). Relativity Media bought it off of Lionsgate for just over $3m. The beauty in the model is that they’ve already tripled their production budget after 3 days. However, considering that Lazarus was granted a rather damning C- CinemaScore by opening night audiences big drop-offs in the coming weeks are likely making it possible that they’ll struggle to reach that $25m threshold.
6. McFarland, USA
- Production Budget=$25m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$7.8m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Nothing
- Current Domestic Total=$22m
7. American Sniper
- Production Budget=$60m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$7.3m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$19.5m
- Current Domestic/International/Worldwide Total=$330.8m/$139.1m/$469.9m
8. The DUFF
- Production Budget=$8.5m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$6.8m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Nothing
- Current Domestic Total=$19.7m
Adapted from a novel written by an actual high school senior, The DUFF is the first real high school comedy to make any noise at the box office since 21 Jump Street ($138m domestic) and Project X ($54m domestic) in 2012 and Easy A ($58m domestic) in 2010. It is a genre which has been on the decline. Females under the age of 25 (comprising 68% of the audience) have largely been responsible for ensuring that The DUFF should manage to turn a modest profit.
9. Still Alice (Top 10 Debut)
- Production Budget=$5m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$2.6m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Nothing
- Current Domestic Total=$11.9m
Unlike most of the other Academy Award contenders, Still Alice has been holding back for literally months now, slowly adding new theaters before expanding wide the weekend of the Oscars and then adding nearly 600 more theaters this weekend. That’s the type of strategy you can utilize when pretty much everyone knew Julianne Moore was going to win Best Actress thus guaranteeing that you’re wide expansion would coincide with a win instead of a loss.
10. Hot Tub Time Machine 2
- Production Budget=$14m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$2.4m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Nothing
- Current Domestic Total=$10.2m
What Left the Top 10?: Paddington (Current total: $70.1m domestic/$55m budget), Jupiter Ascending (Current total: $43.1m domestic/$176m budget) & The Imitation Game (Current total: $86.8m domestic/$14m budget)
What’s Up Next?: Chappie (Robot movie from the guy who made District 9 and Elysium), The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (whose title is tailor-made for reviews declaring this sequel to be inferior to its predecessor) & Unfinished Business (Dave Franco/Vince Vaughn comedy which feels like it’s not getting much of a marketing push)