Salting Stars’ Wounded Power

Salting Stars' Wounded Power (photo)

Do stars still matter? Depends on how you define the word "matter."

In his review of the new Angeline Jolie thriller “Salt” in the New York Times, A. O. Scott describes the film’s star as its “prime special effect and a reminder that even in an era of technological overkill, movie stars matter.”

Do stars still matter? It’s an issue we’ve been mulling over for months on IFC.com. Last December, we focused an episode of our weekly podcast on this very issue. Inspired by Lionsgate’s release of the Russell Crowe movie “Tenderness” to just a single screen in Manhattan, we wondered whether stars have the same power and pull as they used to (our conclusion at the time: no). A few weeks ago, Stephen Saito put together a list of movies with major talent like Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jim Carrey that aren’t coming to movies any time soon.

Now, when Scott says movie stars matter, he’s referring to their work inside a film, the way they elevate material with their charisma and their talent. On that point, I don’t disagree. But just as — if not more — important to Hollywood is the question of whether movie stars still matter at the box office. Someone who brings a spark to written material onscreen isn’t necessarily a star unless they put butts in the seats while they do it.

We’ll have to wait and see how “Salt” does in theaters to know where Jolie’s star stands, but in the meantime, let’s look at the top grossing movies of the year at the domestic box office. According to Box Office Mojo:

1) Toy Story 3 – $366.9 million
2) Alice in Wonderland $334.1 million
3) Iron Man 2 – $310.2 million
4) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse $268.9 million
5) Shrek Forever After $234.5

That’s four sequels and one live-action-remake-slash-classic-literary adaptation. There are definitely movie stars in all five films, but I’m not sure how much of these films success we want to attribute to them. One the one hand, something like “Alice in Wonderland” was absolutely sold as a star vehicle; the marketing focused primarily on Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter even though he was a supporting character in the film. On the other hand, if “Tom Hanks hadn’t returned for “Toy Story 3,” or Mike Myers decided he didn’t want to voice Shrek for a fourth time, would either film have made less money?

07222010_stars3.jpgPerhaps. But both of those movies had many other elements they were selling as well: established and popular franchises, the first opportunity to see the characters in 3D, and so on. In other words, no matter how effective their stars, these movies — the most successful ones of the year — are also very much home to Scott’s “technological overkill.”

Robert Downey Jr. is terrific in the role of Tony Stark, but when he puts on his suit of Iron Man armor he’s replaced by a far less charismatic special effect (director Jon Favreau compensated for the loss of his star in action scenes by using a device that puts a camera inside Iron Man’s helmet and lets us watch him control it). And that special effect is the guy on all the T-shirts and action figures.

We wouldn’t call “Toy Story 3″ a star vehicle in the way something like “Salt” absolutely is. And if we go down the list of box office grosses looking for the true star vehicles — movies sold to audiences as opportunities to come watch stars act like stars, particularly in instances that don’t involve well-known source material — we won’t find them until we get much lower.

“Knight and Day” with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz has made just $70.0 million in almost a month of release. “The Bounty Hunter” with Jennifer Aniston is right behind it with $67.0 million. You could claim these movies’ quality had a bigger impact on their success or failure than the presence of their stars. But terrible reviews hasn’t stopped “The Last Airbender,” a movie with no stars, a lot of special effects, and a popular property, from outgrossing both of them by a wide margin.

07222010_stars2.jpgThe most interesting test case on the subject of stars in recent years has been the “Twilight” franchise. Though these films definitely have their share of other salable elements — CGI, sci-fi and horror themes, the wildly popular Stephenie Meyer novels — there’s no debate that people are also coming to the theater to see their stars, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner.

At least Summit Entertainment, the company the releases the “Twilight” films, thinks so; that’s why they just renegotiated their contracts for the series’ final installment to the tune of $25 million against 7.5% of the theatrical gross each, according to Vulture.com. But “StewPattnNer”‘s appeal hasn’t translated to other projects yet: the Pattinson star vehicle “Remember Me” made about 6% of what “New Moon” grossed; Stewart’s Runaways biopic (with fellow Twilighter Dakota Fanning) earned just $3.5 million, not bad for a indie film, not great for a rising star branching out from her the role that made her. Audiences definitely want to see these actors in this franchise. But a true movie star is a draw regardless of role.

As I write this, thousands of fans are crowded into a room in the San Diego Convention Center to see the stars of the coming year’s genre movies. Folks line up for hours (sometimes days) for the opportunity to ogle and interact with movie stars at Comic-Con; it’s a big reason a comic book convention has mutated into one of Hollywood’s biggest promotional events of the year. Angelina Jolie’s even there today, promoting “Salt.” But will her presence, at Comic-Con and in the film, matter? As one person at her panel tweeted “Angelina Jolie on stage. SALT look better than thought. I might see it.” Not exactly proof, but it’s a start.

[Additional photos: "Alice in Wonderland," Disney, 2010; "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," Summit, 2010]

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