Hollywood Needs To Fix Their Broken Movie Star System

While we don’t yet have a trailer or much in the way of plot, we do have a first-look still and a November 12 release date for Netflix’s Red Notice. The $130 million action-heist movie, starring Dwayne Johnson (the cop), Gal Gadot (the thief) and Ryan Reynolds (the con artist), was supposed to be a Universal theatrical release once upon a time, but the screenplay started looking excessively pricy (especially as Ryan Reynolds jumped on board) for a movie that may have been more Thomas Crown Affair than Fast & Furious 6, and it became the biggest (thus far) Netflix original and their unofficial super-duper event movie of 2021.

There was a time, like two years ago, when I argued that Red Notice (back when it was a Universal flick with just Johnson and Gadot onboard) might represent a newfangled blockbuster/tentpole once Avengers and Star Wars ended their respective mega-arcs. This was back when 2019 was seemingly the end of all things, with Frozen II, Toy Story 4, Star Wars 9, Avengers 4, Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time to Die essentially closing the books on some of our biggest and most reliable theatrical franchises. Obviously Hollywood shifting some of their biggies to 2020 to avoid the Disney fire sale, and then those same films getting further delayed or compromised by Covid, changed the equation somewhat.

However, the situation remains the same: We don’t know how popular Marvel will remain after “The Infinity Saga,” nor how popular Star Wars will be now that the “Skywalker Saga” ended with… a whimper. Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible and Daniel Craig’s James Bond franchises are coming to a natural end, and we don’t know of either of those (otherwise sturdy) IP can continue over the next stage of evolution. That’s more true for Mission: Impossible, whose feature franchise has always been rooted in “Tom Cruise in a big-budget action spectacular” versus the ever-evolving 007 series. Nonetheless, that leaves The Fast Saga (coming to an end with Fast 11) and Jurassic.

If Hollywood wants any chance of maintaining a vibrant theatrical industry, they have to find some way to rebuild the movie star system. The lack of original biggies, and the commercial unreliability of even moderately-budgeted originals or new-to-you adaptations, is almost entirely rooted in the death of the “movie star system.” Simply put, audiences didn’t once have a now-diminished thirst for originality. They were just willing to show up to a new movie where the “franchise” was merely a popular movie star in a high-concept plot. When the actor, not the IP and not the marquee character, was “the franchise,” audiences would show up for original and new-to-you theatrical films.

Hollywood did finally realize, 20 years too late, that it had wasted a generation trying to turn every vaguely talented and handsome white guy into “the next Tom Cruise” (while casting the likes of Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund in Legend over and over again) rather than challenging conventional wisdom about overseas box office and trying to find “the next Will Smith.” But when audiences no longer show up for “that guy I liked in that franchise film in a non-franchise role,” then casting John Boyega in The Force Awakens means little more than Boyega getting trolled by clickbait Star Wars inquiries every time he attempts to promote anything else.

Sure, Robert Downey Jr. gabbing about Iron Man 4 in late 2014 got folks to talk about The Judge, but it didn’t make The Judge into a hit. We all remember in 2015 how Helen Mirren talked about wanting to be in a Fast & Furious movie, but who remembers the movie she was promoting (The Woman in Gold) at the time? Tom Hanks “winning the Internet” in October of 2016 via the Saturday Night Live David S. Pumpkin sketch didn’t prevent Inferno from bombing in North America. Olivia Rodrigo becoming the next musical mega-star didn’t make High School Musical The Musical The Series into Disney+’s top-trending show.

Once upon a time, “Tim Allen, William H. Macy and John Travolta going through a mid-life crisis as bikers” was enough to make Wild Hogs a $46 million opener for Disney. The core difference between Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that in 1997 folks would show up for “Bruce Willis in a bonkers-bananas futuristic sci-fi flick” while in 2017 audiences don’t know or care about Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevinge. “Will Smith as a non-toxic pickup artist” was enough to make Hitch a $180 million smash for Sony. Now Will Smith can only “score” essentially playing Hitch as the Genie in Aladdin.

The closest one of these “new to you” mega-bucks sci-fi fantasies came to being a hit, Alita: Battle Angel ($405 million on a $170 million budget), was a case of Fox successfully selling the protagonist (played by Rosa Salazar) as a viable marquee character. Yes, there are very minor exceptions. Leonardo DiCaprio is still absolutely a butts-in-seats draw, while both Denzel Washington and Gerard Butler are movie stars for films cheap enough to succeed on a $15 million opening weekend. Part of this is that the big movies got more expensive, the marketing became pricier and the post-theatrical life became less reliable.

The Fifth Element was a hit at $264 million worldwide on a $90 million budget, but Valerian earned $217 million on a bonkers $185 million budget. Likewise, The Matrix can be a genre-defining hit on a $60 million budget, but Jupiter Ascending is so expensive at $175 million that it *has* to match The Matrix’s $465 million global gross just to justify itself. The 2015 Mila Kunis/Channing Tatum sci-fi spectacular’s $185 million gross would have been okay at a Matrix-level budget, but not a “more than Matrix Revolutions” cost. Part of this is the old “Don’t spend Return of the King money on Fellowship of the Ring” rule.

But this isn’t just about justifying spending $190 million on Tomorrowland or even $100 million on Mortal Engines. This is about rebuilding audiences’ interest in actual human actors and actresses in a variety of reasonably-budgeted genres so that star-driven movies like Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train or Sandra Bullock’s The Lost City of D aren’t considered the last of a dying breed. Even amid a streaming environment, one which obviously benefits the films that don’t require a movie ticket and a “movie by movie” financial autopsy, if you can get audiences to go to the theaters because they like the actor and the premise sounds neat, that’s the ballgame.

We already know that movie stars still matter, both as added value elements in certain franchise fare (Tom Hardy… *is* Venom!”) and as part of an ensemble in a well-reviewed, buzzy, escapist studio programmer (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood). And, movie stars absolutely matter in the streaming world, where audiences will open up Netflix, see Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds’ movie star mugs smiling at them and hit “play” on writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice. The industry-defining question is whether Hollywood can retrain audiences to show up in theaters for the same star-driven content (Extraction, Spenser Confidential, Red Notice, etc.) that they now will only view if it’s free at home.

If you can fix that, studios won’t be as dependent on previously-successful IP or grafting a sympathetic origin story prequel to every vaguely viable “marquee character.” You won’t have the Internet (and less-informed social media users) decrying Hollywood running out of ideas even as they willfully ignore the (in pre-Covid times) weekly release of non-IP, non-franchise, adult-skewing, star-driven “old-fashioned movies” in multiplexes nationwide. I don’t have a bulletproof idea on how to reset the star-driven theatrical model, and it may take a few years of trial-and-error. But unless Hollywood wants to spend the rest of its days making prequels to Jurassic Park or origin stories for Aladdin’s Jafar, it’s work that must be done.

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