The movies may be bigger than ever, but movie stars are over.
Johnny Depp — a genuinely great and inventive actor — tops the Forbes list of the film stars generating the least box-office bang for the buck.
The (extremely oversimplified) tabulation by Forbes puts Depp in first place because his movies lately have returned only $2.80 for each dollar spent on him. Movies cost a lot more than just the salary of the leading man, though; his too-long-delayed sequel to “Alice in Wonderland,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” took in $300 million on a budget of $190 million plus unknown worldwide distribution and marketing costs, perhaps in the $80 million to $100 million range. Movie studios only pocket about half of the box-office take, so break-even for the sequel would be something like $550 million.
Every star has flops, but today’s audiences are no longer following favorite stars around. They aren’t even turning up for the opening weekend for films like Depp’s “Mortdecai” (worldwide gross $47 million), “Transcendence” ($103 million) or even the well-crafted “Black Mass” ($100 million).
Will Smith, generally considered the biggest movie star on Earth a few years ago, was second on Forbes’ most-overpaid list because of duds such as “Concussion” ($48 million) and “Focus” ($159 million). Smith’s ensemble piece “Suicide Squad” was a big hit, but would it have earned less if his role had been played by a no-name actor? The franchise sells the picture.
Audiences are showing up for special-effects spectacle and for intriguing characters: Benedict Cumberbatch may be great in “Doctor Strange,” but no one bought tickets to that saying, “Look, honey, there’s a new Benedict Cumberbatch movie!”
Jennifer Lawrence has more star wattage than anybody, but does that mean audiences will show up to her next one, “Passengers,” which is generating bad buzz? Only if the audience is pulled in by the story. They certainly weren’t there for her last one, “Joy” ($101 million). Her appeal couldn’t prevent audiences from noticing the deterioration of quality in the “Hunger Games” franchise, in which the third episode did worse than the second and the fourth did worse than the third.
Audiences have rejected star vehicles for Bradley Cooper (“Burnt,” “Aloha”), Channing Tatum (“Jupiter Ascending”), Christian Bale (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and Matthew McConaughey (“Free State of Jones”).
Leonardo DiCaprio, who has first crack at the best scripts and directors, is riding a string of four straight hits, but before that he had four flops out of six. George Clooney? His entire movie career has been a stream of red ink with a few scattered exceptions (the three “Ocean’s” movies and “The Perfect Storm”).
Comic actors pose less financial downside because their films are much cheaper than action spectacles, but the catch is that most comedy doesn’t travel well across cultures. Will Ferrell movies do OK here, but Europeans and Asians don’t get him. That goes double for Kevin Hart. (Put them in the same movie, “Get Hard,” and the results overseas are especially woeful: $21 million from the whole rest of the world.)
According to Forbes, the world’s leading movie star is a Nautilus machine in human form: Dwayne Johnson, who took in $64.5 million this year and has had four big hits (including the animated “Moana”) in the past two years. Sure, everybody loves The Rock, but only as long as he doesn’t get too fancy.
Johnson’s name on a movie signifies one important thing to audiences: No one is going to ask you to think for the next couple of hours. If he tries to stretch his wings and make “Mortdecai 2,” don’t expect audiences to follow.