DID YOU READ

What makes a movie star?

What makes a movie star? (photo)

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Over on his new website Grantland.com, ESPN’s Bill Simmons has written a really interesting column called “The Movie Star.” He sets out to examine two main points — that Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world and that Ryan Reynolds is not a movie star at all — and ultimately falls into a much larger and thornier topic: what makes a movie star?

For Simmons, stardom equals box office. In his mind there are only 24 true movie stars working in Hollywood right now (he doesn’t appear to rank them, but this is the order in which they’re listed): Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Russell Crowe, Jeff Bridges, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Jake Gyllenhaal, Justin Timberlake, and Kevin James. And what do these guys — no women, notably — have in common? “All of them can open any movie in their wheelhouse that’s half-decent,” says Simmons. “If it’s a well-reviewed movie, even better.”

Reynolds doesn’t make the cut because of the stats: he “starred in 20 movies over the past 10 years. Four went straight to DVD or premiered on TV. Another four made little to no money whatsoever.” He also brings Reynolds’ movies’ Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings, but I’m not sure actors can be held accountable for their bad reviews and even if they are, I don’t see how they determine whether or not someone is a movie star. After all, wildly negative reviews on just about every one of his films haven’t stopped Kevin James, who’s on Simmons’ movie star list, from making a ton of money at the box office. If anything, you could argue that low Rotten Tomatoes ratings might be a better indicator of stardom, if they can be corollated with high ticket sales. If a star gets consistently low Rotten Tomatoes ratings and still makes money that means audiences willfully ignore bad reviews to see a movie star they love and trust (see: Sylvester Stallone in his 1980s prime).

The problem with Simmons’ argument is that when it comes to movie stars, box office tells a large story, but not a complete one. Movie stardom is ephemeral and unquantifiable. Box office numbers don’t always add up to public perception. Simmons’ own list of stars proves that.

Consider his argument about the recent career of Jim Carrey. Carrey’s IMDb page, he says, proves he’s not a movie star anymore. His last five movies — “Fun With Dick & Jane,” “The Number 23,” “Yes Man,” “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” — represent, according to Simmons, “a six-year stretch of forgettability” (he leaves out Carrey’s two big animated hits over that stretch, “Horton Hears a Who” and “A Christmas Carol”). Hollywood, he says, tries “to manipulate us into thinking Carrey is still a movie star by inundating us with billboards and commercials featuring his mug.”

But later Simmons contradicts himself. In describing what makes Will Smith the world’s biggest movie star (at least according to screenwriter William Goldman) he explains that no matter how bad his movies are they always make money, because people like Will Smith and they want to see him. “I, Robot,” “Seven Pounds,” “I Am Legend” — “If I gave you those three Blu-rays for Christmas,” Simmons writes, “you would regift them to someone you didn’t like. Doesn’t matter. Will Smith’s movies make money.”

Absolutely true. But if your argument is Will Smith is a movie star and Jim Carrey is not because Will Smith’s movies are both forgettable and profitable while Jim Carrey’s are merely forgettable, you are ignoring some of the facts. A lot of Carrey’s recent movies made money; not as much as Smith, but more than many of the other 23 stars on Simmons’ list.

To see how this all shakes out I did something I hate doing: math. I applied Simmons’ “last five movies” test to all 24 of his movie stars, added up the worldwide box office grosses of those films (according to Box Office Mojo) and divided them to get an average box office gross. Let’s call this stat LFMA (Last Five Movies Average). Here’s how it shook out:

LFMA For Bill Simmons’ Movie Stars (in millions):
Johnny Depp: $518.6
Tom Hanks: $485.4
Will Smith: $410.5
Christian Bale: $345.6
Robert Downey Jr.: $316.8
Leonardo DiCaprio: $296.3
Ben Stiller: $266.8
Steve Carell: $261.8
Brad Pitt: $232.5
Tom Cruise: $222.2
Kevin James: $215.4
Adam Sandler: $194.1
Jeff Bridges: $191.3
Seth Rogen: $184.3
Russell Crowe: $170.7
Zach Galifianakis: $170.4
Denzel Washington: $154.3
Matt Damon: $139.0
Will Ferrell: $138.3
Mark Wahlberg: $126.1
Jake Gyllenhaal: $125.0
Justin Timberlake: $105.0
George Clooney: $102.0
Ben Affleck: $87.2

Jim Carrey’s LFMA? $182.6. Less than Will Smith’s? Absolutely. But better than ten of the stars on Simmons’ list; in the case of Ben Affleck, whose last five films (as an actor) are “The Company Men,” “The Town,” “Extract,” “State of Play,” and “He’s Just Not That Into You,” it’s almost $100 million better on average. Are Carrey’s movies any more forgettable than Affleck’s? Looking at that list, maybe not. As for Ryan Reynolds, his LFMA is $166.4, a number that would put him ahead of Matt Damon and Denzel Washington over the same stretch of movies.

Am I arguing Ryan Reynolds is a bigger movie star than Matt Damon and Denzel Washington? Absolutely not. If we put together a fantasy movie star draft, you’d pick Damon and Washington ahead of Reynolds ten times out of ten (you’d probably pick both of them ahead of Carrey too). You might even pick George Clooney ahead of Damon and Washington, even though he ranks 23 out of 24 in LFMA. That’s because movie stardom is more than what your last five movies grossed.

To use another sports metaphor, Damon, Washington, and Clooney all have better intangibles: the stuff the numbers don’t see. Simmons (rightfully, I’d argue) takes Will Smith to task for playing it safe in movie after movie; developing a formula for success and repeating it rather than stretching himself as an actor. But lots of other actors on his list do stretch themselves, and when their movies make less money as a result, it doesn’t make them lesser movie stars, just more adventurous actors. Clooney’s a great example: he makes mainstream movie star movies (“Up in the Air,” the “Ocean’s” pictures) and he makes weirder, more personal movies (“The American,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). Similarly, just because the American public wasn’t ready for a gay romantic comedy like “I Love You Phillip Morris” doesn’t mean the movie was bad (it’s great, actually) or Jim Carrey is any less of a movie star.

I also think the whole Will-Smith-is-the-biggest-star-in-the-world point is up for debate too. On the LFMA chart he ranks third behind Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp. You could argue that Hanks’ placement is due largely to his involvement with two foolproof properties: “The Da Vinci Code” and “Toy Story” but Depp’s current popularity is astounding. He doesn’t even need “half-decent” material: “The Tourist” made over $275 million worldwide off a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 19%. He helped “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” an extremely eccentric Terry Gilliam movie, earn over $50 million overseas. The poster for “Alice in Wonderland” was just a picture of Depp’s face in his weird Mad Hatter get-up. The movie still made over a billion dollars worldwide. In our imaginary fantasy movie star draft, you have to take Johnny Depp first.

You’d also have to take Depp’s “Tourist” co-star, Angelina Jolie, in the top ten. I’m not sure why Simmons’ list doesn’t include any actresses (Simmons later tweeted that he was writing only about leading men), but Jolie is a much bigger star than half the actors he mentions. Her LFMA is an astronomical $306.3 million and if you look at the movies she’s making, she rarely does ensemble pieces or material based on popular comic book, TV, or game properties. Films like “The Tourist,” “Salt,” and “Changeling” are straight-up star vehicles.

Come to think of it, the posters for “Salt” and “Changeling” were like the “Alice in Wonderland” poster of Depp: just a big image of Jolie’s beautiful mug (the poster for “The Tourist” was both of their faces). And maybe that’s the measure of star power we should go by. Can your face alone sell a movie? Jolie’s can, Depp’s can. Smith’s can — just check out the poster for “Hancock.” On the other hand, the fact that 20th Century Fox didn’t put Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s faces on the poster of “Knight and Day” might indicate their star power’s on the wane (then again, the movie made $261.9 million, so who knows).

It is definitely a tough time for stars. Properties, more than actors, determine the movies that get made. Ryan Reynolds might not be starring in “Green Lantern” because he’s a “star;” he might be starring in “Green Lantern” because the “Green Lantern” property is the real star and Reynolds is cheaper to hire than, say, Matt Damon. When your movie costs upwards of $200 million, you’ve got to cut costs wherever you can.

Is Ryan Reynolds a movie star? Probably not, not yet anyway. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be. If you hire actors based solely on what their previous movies made, you’ll never have new movie stars, because you’ll never take a chance on an up-and-coming actor. If LFMA dictated casting, Zach Galifianakis wouldn’t have been in “The Hangover,” Christian Bale would never have become Batman, and Ben Affleck would be out of work right now. Stats don’t tell the entire story. And at a certain point, you have to take a risk.

Who’s the biggest movie star in the world? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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