News Column

Florence Morning News, S.C., Matt Tate column

June 6, 2013


June 06--A popular meme floating around movie blogs is the dearth -- or death -- of movie stars. Looking at the tentpole films this summer, it would seem we're more likely to spend our dollars on genres, concepts and properties rather than actual people.

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis were all paid $15 million for the underperforming "The Hangover Part III." Will Smith's "After Earth" opened to rather pedestrian numbers. Johnny Depp's "The Lone Ranger" and Brad Pitt's "World War Z" are both tracking low.

Meanwhile, "Iron Man 3" -- the fourth outing with comic book hero Tony Stark -- and the starless "Star Trek Into Darkness" -- a sequel to a rebooted film franchise that is based off a TV show, which is also a quasi-remake of the first sequel of the original film franchise (got that?) -- are topping the box office.

Movie execs are betting the names audiences are willing to pay for these days appear below the marquee instead of on top of it.

In recent years, Hollywood has invested heavily in conglomerate brands -- sequels, remakes, source material or other cultural touchstones repackaged for cinematic consumption. If a project happens to attract the interest of a genuine movie star, fine; otherwise, find an ersatz one -- Shia LaBeouf, Daniel Radcliffe or Robert Pattinson will do -- and start the cameras rolling. All of those "stars," incidentally, were deemed the three biggest movie stars in terms of box office bankability after some number crunching by Forbes recently.

From a financial perspective, there's sound logic afoot. A movie like "Fast and Furious 6" (!) takes more than $300 million to film, produce and market, a sizable investment even by profligate Hollywood standards. Since the film industry, historically, not only has a hard time forecasting, but also difficulty analyzing past results, the namebrand is more likely to get the green light. "Twilight" was a massive success, so in its wake execs mined young-adult fiction, surmising in their own dialectic fashion, that if one popular literary property succeeds, surely others must as well. OK, but this year's "Beautiful Creatures" and "The Host" (What?! Haven't heard of those?!) proved otherwise.

This not-so-brave world of film franchising catered to the under-30 crowd has created a vacuum when it comes to meaningful content. As a result, quality, adult storytelling populated with quality, adult actors, not stars, has flocked to AMC, Showtime and other cable networks, finding proper homes as DVR and Netflix staples.

This seems to signal that there is still a big audience out there that is not necessarily tuning in for stars or corporate merchandising, but rather top-notch, original entertainment.

Gee, what a concept.

Take Steven Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra," the tale about famed performer Liberace and his life with lover Scott Thorson that bypassed theaters for a run on HBO last month. The film, which featured once-upon-a-time star Michael Douglas and borderline star Matt Damon in complex, challenging roles, landed on the cable network reportedly because Hollywood producers deemed it too gay.

Too bad.

The film aired twice May 26, pulling in a combined 3.5 million viewers according to Nielsen estimates. That's a blockbuster by any standards, although it takes some extrapolating to make the figures work. If 3.5 million people paid the average $8 ticket to see "Behind the Candelabra" on the big screen, it would have resulted in a $28 million opening weekend. ... or more than "After Earth" pulled in its debut. Surely the budget -- how much can a million sequins cost? -- was far less.

A lack of appealing, adult choices at the cinema is not for a lack of movie stars. There are plenty out there -- Pitt, Smith and Depp make three of them at least -- despite what looks like this summer's miscues. Instead, it's a shortage of movie writers, producers and directors. If execs would be willing to put more innovative projects in the pipeline that pull actors to the specific instead of the generic, it would better strike that balance between commerce and art that speaks to the sensibilities of adult audiences.

And a star or two might be (re)born.

When he is not wondering why Jeff Bridges isn't the biggest movie star in the world, Matt Tate works as the news editor of the Morning News. Contact him at 843-317-7284 or


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