Being a movie star isn’t what it used to be, at least at the box office. A-list actors have opened movies big by themselves for decades, yet things are different now. Special effects, comic book characters and spectacle guarantee box office now, and not so much actors. In an age where some think the ‘movie star’ image as a whole is gone, big stars have a mixed track record nowadays. No A-list actor guarantees a big opening for a film anymore – but it might be a different story for directors.
By and large, directors are not often a big box office draw. The likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been exceptions, though even Spielberg can’t draw $200 million every time. Still, the actors remain a bigger marketing point than directors, even if actors can’t always entice audiences.
But just having a Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington or a Tom Hanks isn’t enough anymore. Even Adam Sandler fails when he branches out into different films, as some actors’ fans won’t follow him or her everywhere. Will Smith is the closest thing left to a guaranteed draw, although Seven Pounds proved he can’t succeed every time.
Yet this week, Warner Brothers is hoping that a director will be a big draw, like the stars of the old days. When Inception opens, fans of Leonardo DiCaprio will flock to see him. However, it isn’t DiCaprio who has been sold as the big star of the show. That has gone to director Christopher Nolan, the new standard bearer for acclaimed blockbusters. Given his reputation, and how summer 2010 has been mostly devoid of quality, Nolan is being advertised as the savior of summer.
If Inception opens big and stays there, Nolan will officially be the hottest director in Hollywood. What’s more, he will become the rare director that can open a movie himself. Although he had huge hits with the Batman films, it was due to the established Batman fan base – with Heath Ledger and the Joker taking The Dark Knight to $500 million.
For Inception, Nolan doesn’t have iconic comic book characters as a safety net, as this movie is all from his own mind. If that is enough to make Inception the hit everyone hopes, he will have the kind of clout even actors struggle to get.
Few directors have that box office power, yet those who do are as powerful as Cruise and Gibson in their heydays. James Cameron has always guaranteed box office, and has done on in record setting levels the last two times out. Of course, when he took Titanic to $600 million, people went back for the love story, and for DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In the case of Avatar, the 3D drove it up to even higher profits. Even though Cameron wasn’t the main draw for those megahits, his innovations were the main reason they made billions worldwide.
Michael Bay is another guaranteed money maker, in spite of constant bashing by critics. For all the hate leveled at Bay, audiences keep coming to see his movies. The Transformers franchise and Armageddon are the best examples, as they overcame bad word of mouth to dominate summer. Still, Bay’s Transformers success may owe more to the existing fan base for the robots. But no matter what Bay puts on screen to blow up and shoot, it rakes in the green.
M. Night Shyamalan used to be a sure thing, opening three straight hits with his own star power. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs were driven up by Shyamalan fans, trying to decode his puzzles and twists. Of course, his box office clout has faded recently, like so many things about him. Still, in spite of horrific buzz for The Last Airbender, it will still make over $100 million and could keep sequel talk alive. The fan base for Airbender might have helped on that count, but Shyamalan can still point to this as proof that he has clout left.
Like Bay and Shyamalan, Roland Emmerich has also brushed past critics. In fact, Emmerich has revived the disaster genre by himself, to become the Irwin Allen of his time. Whenever he makes a movie, audiences come to see how Emmerich will destroy the world this time around. Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 had Emmerich’s spectacle as the star of the show, and the driving force towards millions. Godzilla, The Patriot and 10,000 B.C. faded faster, though for good or bad, Emmerich is the one who makes audiences show up for his movies.
The days may be gone when one actor or actress can make a film a hit, just by being in it. But that doesn’t mean a director can’t do the same, although he too often needs help. However, the likes of Cameron, Spielberg, Bay, Emmerich and more have had the staying power most A-list stars can’t guarantee anymore, at least at the box office.
Christopher Nolan may or may not join that elite group in the coming days. If his hype and critical love can’t make Inception soar, then he still has Batman 3 to fall back on. Yet if he can make a complicated movie like Inception into a mega hit, then Nolan will join those select few with A-list box office clout. But those select few are more likely to be behind the camera than in front of it nowadays.
Rope Of Silicon- “Will Inception Save the Summer of 2010?”
Hollywood.com- “Adam Sandler: The $100 Million Man”
The Cleveland Leader- “Michael Bay Biggest Money Maker in Hollywood in 2009”