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.