Film Fund-amentals: Lost Among the Stars

One thing I hate about the magazine Vanity Fair is how they allow George Clooney to use it to stalk me. I can’t even flip through the rag without discovering his mug somewhere inside just waiting to pounce out at me. I’ve taken this matter up with my attorney, but he has dismissed it as a sign of paranoia. So I now know that my own lawyer is part of the Clooney conspiracy.

However, the real reason that George, Scarlett, Nicole and all of those other happy-faced gods and goddesses of Hollywood are in those magazines is because they are Stars. If we are to believe their agents (and all of the talking heads on tabloid TV shows), they are the reason people go to movies. That is why they get the big pay checks that allow them to get the really bright whitening treatment at the dentist.

Of course, it’s all nonsense. Nobody goes to a movie only because of the players. OK, truth be told, I know a few elderly men who will go to anything starring Scarlett Johansson for reasons that would get them arrested if they went anywhere near a schoolyard. But that’s a different issue.

But what exactly does a “star” bring to the party — aside from cheap publicity and the occasional scandal? Let’s just do some crude number crunching and see what the figures look like.

Since independent filmmakers are often told that they need to get a name attached to their project, I thought we might take a quick survey of various figures who have either worked largely within modest budget films or who at least have spent time going back and forth between large and low budgets. I have taken both the budget figures for each name and the box office figures from the information available at IMDb.PRO web site, mainly because it is just about the most widely available source of immediate information. From these figures I have created base averages.

For example, both Nicole Kidman and Parker Posey have careers that, oddly enough, have some parallels based upon their mutual proclivity for doing films with large budgets (e.g. Posey was in Superman Returns) as well as pretty small movies (Kidman did not do Dogville for the money). Taking the budget figures for their most recent six films and averaging them, Posey’s average budget is around $63.67 million, while Kidman carries a tag of $83.64 million per film. Posey is definitely a cheaper date.

When it comes to the box office, however, Parker Posey is queen for the day. Her box office average is $46.12 million in contrast to Kidman’s mere $33.22 mil. And I can probably guarantee that Posey is a lot easier on the overall wardrobe budget.

But fair is fair — what about Kidman’s ridiculously famous ex? Tom Cruise is so blasted famous he has his own film studio to run into the ground and practically owns his own religion. So let’s really load the dice and compare his last four films to those of some smaller, lesser figure. Say some one like…Tyler Perry. Based on his last four movies, Tom’s budget averages about $88 million a flick while Perry barely gets on the chart with a mere $9.1 million.

But when it comes to box office, look out. Tom brings in a mighty $85.28 million dollars to Perry’s mere $50 million a film. Oops. Tom doesn’t even break even. Tyler Perry, on the other hand, is actually making big money while playing his gender-bender granny character. Why isn’t he doing Mission: Impossible? Certainly, Madea would have been a vast improvement in Valkyrie.

So how does my stalker stack up in this slightly (but only slightly) bogus comparison? Clooney has created an interesting career by routinely mixing up the deck between budget-busters and intensely serious but smaller movies, creating a production average of $47.83m with a box office return of $51.6m. Not too bad, though a lot of this average is weighted by the bulk of Ocean’s Thirteen. A comparable mix and match in budgets (and one shared superhero) is held by Christian Bale, who aces Clooney with a $52.8m/$110.2m average. Just to add to the battiness, both of these guys are aced out by Michael Caine, who comes in at $73.5m/$116.24m. And Sir Michael doesn’t even have to wear tights. He simply acts for a living.

Obviously, these comparisons are crude and only half-serious. But the same should be said about the whole star concept. Having a big name attached to a project does get attention for the movie. Most often, it forces the budget ever upward. The return on this investment is, at best, debatable. In the case of some actors, the effect is virtually detrimental.

Now excuse me. I’m waiting to see where George is leering at me this time in Vanity Fair.

— Dennis Toth