When did big budget star vehicles become the underdogs?

Feature Rob Leane 9 Jun 2014 - 06:26

After the curious case of Edge Of Tomorrow’s surprise critical popularity, Rob investigates a strange Hollywood happening…

The release of Edge Of Tomorrow - which opened in the US this past weekend, following its bow in the UK a week earlier - has brought, not for the first time, a strange Hollywood trend to light. And it's this: do we trust big stars to make decent movies anymore?

Many people, this writer included, took a lot of convincing to venture out and see Tom Cruise in a hugely expensive sci-fi spectacular (notwithstanding the fact that Cruise has fine form in science fiction). The film in question, Edge Of Tomorrow, is directed by Doug Liman of The Bourne Identity, and based on a graphic novel with a cool title. So surely this should have been a movie which audiences were enthusiastically anticipating? Yet It didn’t seem that way, both in certain geeky circles and - off the back of its US box office numbers - amongst the broader audience either.

There was something about the movie which some potential audience-members didn’t seem to engage with immediately. The trailer and publicity didn't help, but it seemed that there was more to it than that. Yet soon, after the reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations began coming, it became apparent that Edge Of Tomorrow was a veritable treasure trove for moviegoers. 

Indeed, Edge Of Tomorrow is a strong sci-fi/action flick with splashes of dark humour, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and, perhaps most importantly, hinges on two great central performances. Looking at the trailers, and the director’s previous form, it seems a bit odd that most of us didn’t predict this would be a contender for one of the most geek-friendly films of the year. 

Have we, as a cinema-going whole, become disillusioned with ‘star power’ then? Is all we anticipate these days the next superhero flick or franchise instalment? If so, why? We had a look through recent history in search of some answers…

The 1990s: Star-driven cinema at a high point

For those growing up in the 1990s, star power was most certainly a big thing. My generation fervently tuned in to BBC2 day in day out, to follow-up our daily Simpsons fix with a much-needed dose of Will Smith in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. I distinctly remember putting my school blazer on inside-out to try and emulate the star-in-the-making’s seemingly effortless cool. 

Although my peers and I fell short of the 18 certificate for his first blockbuster outing Bad Boys, Will Smith's double salvo of Independence Day (12) and Men In Black (PG) cemented him as the complete cinematic star to a whole new generation of cinemagoers. He had the looks, the charm, the comedy-factor, the family-friendly rap records. 

In short, Smith was everything geeky kids wanted in a star. Let it be stressed - we even liked Men In Black 2. To this new batch of film-lovers, he was bulletproof. He was our entry-level star, who made the jump from our TV screens, to the local cinema, to our hearts, with relative ease. 

And if Will Smith was the king of bringing comedy nuances to high concept actioneers, Tom Cruise was quickly learning to dominate the world of the straight action cinema. The late 1980s had seen Cruise wow audiences with Top Gun and Born On The Fourth Of July, and now the 1990s handed plenty more opportunities to headline movies (some of which he produced). He overcame much controversy to emerge triumphant from Interview With The Vampire and attempted legal thriller with The Firm before launching Mission: Impossible in 1996.

The film performed well enough, claiming the third spot at the yearly box office behind Bill Paxton-starring disaster flick Twister and, at the top of the pile, Will Smith’s Independence Day

Comedy had its own rising star too, with Jim Carrey climbing through the ranks to become a household name, and a bankable leading man. Although another popular star Tom Hanks had held the box office top spot in 1994, Jim Carrey had not one, not two, but three films in the top twenty for the year: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.

This was a time, then, when studios banked hard on stars – one crowd-pleasing turn could open up countless opportunities near-immediately, which would mostly all seem to connect well with audiences (albeit with a few blips like The Cable Guy foreshadowing the more difficult future to come). Another example of the 1990s reliance on star power was the Batman franchise which, in the wake of Tim Burton’s departure, would add Carrey, Clooney and Schwarzenegger across two sequels in an attempt to stay afloat. And we all know how that turned out.

In 1999, though, the box office crown went to Star Wars: The Phantom Menance. The return of a franchise which had always endorsed an ensemble cast and hadn’t relied on established stars in its original run, but made their own (and as we've discussed, 1999 was a year with big ramifications for cinema).

The 2000s: Rise of the huge franchises

So was this the beginning of the end? Did the return of a huge franchise which was based on the principle of casting unknowns and a few experienced thespians against a backdrop of spectacular fantasy-action herald the end of cinema’s dependence on stars?

Well, short answer: no. Not immediately anyway. The decade began incredibly well for star power, with the box office totals for 2000 seeing Carrey, Hanks and Cruise at the top of the pile with How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Castaway and Mission: Impossible II respectively.

If you scroll down to eighth on the list though, things begin to get interesting. Bryan Singer’s original X-Men, despite falling short of the star vehicles, had taken a very respectable US total of over $150m. This grew to just shy of $300m worldwide. Like Star Wars, Singer didn’t rely on the power of star actors. He welcomed experienced thespians like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (who was already an established geek favourite after 13 years since Star Trek: The Next Generation had begun) to help guide new talent through an engaging, fantastical plot, without the camp and disappointment of the now-dead Batman franchise. 

The film’s success was like a calling card to Hollywood, a potent suggestion that there were other ways to make big money worldwide beyond simply thrusting Cruise, Carrey, Smith, Hanks, or any other star, into a new scenario. Already in production at this stage, and on their way to huge success, were Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone and The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. Both delivered a similar message by grabbing the top two spots in 2001. Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky came 20th while Will Smith’s Ali just snuck into the top 40 and Jim Carrey struggled around the eighty mark with a serious turn in the underappreciated The Majestic (although, to be fair, all three of these were more projects that got made because of a movie star's involvement, rather than as potentially huge blockbusters). Ben Affleck’s Pearl Harbour did better than any of the stars who had dominated the previous year. Tom Hanks didn’t have a movie out.

Within a year, the whole system had been flipped, turned upside-down. Audiences were clearly more up for fantastical franchise fun (with mixed experience-meets-newcomers casts) than their usual stars. Interestingly, animated efforts in the shape of Shrek and Monsters, Inc. had come third and fourth respectively, beating all the old favourites, too.

Throughout the 2000s, this battle continued to rage, with both sides having their moments of glory. To look purely at the statistics though, the franchises generally did better than the star vehicles. The films which mixed both stars and fantasy elements (I’m looking at you, Pirates Of The Caribbean) fared pretty well too. 

The other 2000s US box office end-of-year toppers were: Spider-Man, The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, Shrek 2, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight, and Avatar.

Tom Cruise movies regularly made good money in the 2000s with Minority Report, War Of The Worlds, The Last Samurai and Mission: Impossible III, but henever took the end-of-year crown. War Of The Worlds took a strong $230m+ US gross in 2005 but came fourth behind not only the final Star Wars prequel, but also Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire and The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. 2000s film fans clearly loved fantasy and science fiction but undoubtedly seemed to trust recognisable franchise names than studio-endorsed stars, in 2005 at least.

Similarly, Will Smith’s biggest film between 2001 and 2009 was zombie flick I Am Legend, which took $255m+ US box office haul, but lost out to Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End and Harry Potter And The Order of the Phoenix in the end-of-year league table.

Carrey’s Bruce Almighty took $240m+ in the US in 2003, but couldn’t beat The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Finding Nemo, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl or Matrix Reloaded. Without a Toy Story sequel (with animation being the other clear favourite here, alongside the fantasy/sci-fi/comic book franchises), Tom Hanks' biggest film from 2001-2009 was The Da Vinci Code, which lost out to Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Cars, X-Men: The Last Stand, Cars and, a bit of a curveball, Night At The Museum.

Appreciating that stars were headlining films that were still making lots of money in some cases, there was nonetheless a sense that the tide was turning....

The 2010s: Underperforming star vehicles

So, the full picture seems to be forming - we’ve begun doubting star vehicles due to the rise of comic book/science fiction/fantasy franchises which don’t rely on casting stars, but specialise in making them. Who would have thought a few years back that Robert Downey Jnr would have more consistent appeal at the box office than Tom Cruise?

We live in a time where studios entrust big money to the likes of Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, not to ensnare a star, but to find a good match for their characters and make the best spectacle possible with whoever that might be. The casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, albeit not as the first choice, is another prime example of this modern make-your-own-star mentality at play. Not many had heard of him before, everyone has now. 

In the last few years, Hollywood’s stars from the 1990s have seen their films flop in ways that would have seemed unfathomable to many growing up. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion failed to break $100m in the US last year, while Will Smith’s After Earth barely broke $60m on home turf. Without Pirates to prop him up, Johnny Depp has had the unenviable double-bill of The Lone Ranger and Transcendence, neither of which broke the $100m mark in America. Jim Carrey co-starred with some penguins in his latest solo vehicle, Mr Popper's Penguins. That didn't do too well either.

Audiences, it seems, won’t just accept any old rubbish from a star anymore. In comic book and effects-dominated blockbusters, that bring with them homemade stars, the movie stars of old are struggling to fit in. Even something as critically loved as Edge Of Tomorrow is struggling to find success in the US. Ten years ago, that would have been a huge box office smash. Now? It's hitting big in areas outside the US - in China, for instance, movie stars are still big business - but on home turf? It's struggling.

But then maybe the days of the big budget star vehicle as we know it are all but done. Only Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks (in their roles as Captain Jack Sparrow and Toy Story’s Woody, respectively) have hit the heady heights of year-end US box office number one since 2001.

Toy Story 3, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Avengers Assemble and The Hunger Games’ sequel Catching Fire have been the year-end US box office winners so far this decade, suggesting this pattern of franchises prevailing over star vehicles looking unlikely to stop. All the major stars (outside of comic book/fantasy roles) are currently outside the top ten for 2014, although Edge Of Tomorrow and Malificent will currently be hoping to change that. 

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol remains the one huge hit of late for Tom Cruise, during a challenging last few years that have seen Oblivion, Jack Reacher, Rock of Ages, Knight & Day and Valkyrie all fall short of a $100m total on American soil.

What the positive buzz around Edge Of Tomorrow proves is that audiences and reviewers alike are still open to the idea of popular star vehicles, but that films need something more than a star name to break through at the box office now. A movie star's name on a poster doesn't cut it in an era dominated by the likes of Marvel Studios, Pixar, sequels and big fan-favourite fantastical franchises. 

This reversal, which has seen these fantastical franchises starting without household names outperforming the thought-bulletproof stars of old, doesn’t mean the end for big-name stars like Cruise, Smith, Carrey or Hanks. But it does mean that it's getting harder. Edge Of Tomorrow’s slow-building box office total proves that this will be a difficult process. And whilst that's a film that'll still be enjoyed for many years to come, you can't help but think it would have made twice the money already - in the US at least - had it had a Marvel logo on it rather than Tom Cruise's name.

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