Film Fund-amentals: Do You Need a Star?

One of the problems in trying to create a rational model for film finance and production is that the entire industry operates mostly on blind hunches, untested assumptions and general notions that sound like something out of a fairy tale. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the perpetual claim that you need a “star” to sell a movie.

This assumption not only haunts the chaotic world of major pictures, but it is a constantly recurring theme in the indie zone. Don’t believe me, just look at a recent piece in Variety that pounds away at the need for big names in small pictures. They even have half a point, since a well-established actor can give a small production a seal of approval. Arguably, certain performers are more valuable to small films than they are to a blockbuster production. A smallish movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (presumed budget of around $20 to $25 million) is all about its distinguished cast. Something like Transformers is totally about its special effects crew. The actors are just there to fill up space in front of the green screen.

But how much is a star’s name really worth at the box office? To be honest, I thought this question had been answered years ago. Basically, it’s not worth much, according to the study conducted by S. Abraham Ravid of Rutgers University back in 1999. Though the study was conducted back in the 1990s, its conclusions are still valid today. Several years ago, I did a quick survey of actual box office records for various stars and discovered that statistically, Parker Posey had a more dependable track record with the audience then did Nicole Kidman. Technically, Kidman is still a big movie star (ironically even more now despite her many flops) while Posey isn’t. Life just isn’t fair.

So the concept of the movie star is pretty meaningless (unless you’re a movie star). The average star is more important in promoting magazine covers and tabloid newspapers than films. Sure, they get a lot of attention but they don’t actually bring in the gross. About the only place where they do have a measurable effect is within the context of low-budget indie movies, and even there it varies.

The upcoming Wes Anderson production of Moonrise Kingdom has a cast that’s way bigger than its low budget. Of course this has to do with the fact that it’s a Wes Anderson movie. His off-beat and low-key but eccentric reputation has a strong appeal among many actors who are looking for something more to do than simply pose in front of a green screen (which seems to have been the main thing Bruce Willis did in his last Die Hard flick).

Most indie filmmakers cannot attract this level of A talent. Often, indie filmmakers are doing well if they can even get attention from the B list. Many young first-time filmmakers are doing well if they can get a nibble from someone whose name graces a box at the back of a bargain basement DVD bin. Oh sure, if Bruce Willis is willing to do your movie, then just grab him. But most likely you will be barely lucky to get someone like Eric Roberts. Heck, you might suddenly find yourself begging for Ron Jeremy. Ironically, you are more likely to get Eric Roberts. Jeremy is busy with his nightclub, lecture tours and video games. Not only is life unfair but really, really weird.

Either way, the only reason for any indie filmmaker to deal with any “star” is in hope of attracting investors. If the name is good enough to bring in some investors, then you got a “star.” If there are no investors, then you don’t need no stinkin’ stars. This is a hard and fast rule that all indie filmmakers need to live by. As noted above, they don’t really mean that much at the box office. A lot of people went to see Winter’s Bone and discovered Jennifer Lawrence, not the other way around.

However, a case can be made that certain stars are a jinx. This is rarely brought up because nobody in the film industry enjoys giving off negative vibes. But it is a fact, made even stranger by the way it can be completely devoid of any rational reference to the performer’s talents. Even more ironic, it is often a much more dependable phenomenon than the reverse In truth, some of these performers are quite good. Even great. But they just have no luck whatsoever at the box office. I call it the Timothy Dalton Effect.

On paper, Timothy Dalton had in his younger days all the trappings of a major leading man. He had the looks, he had the demeanor, he even could really act, for crying out loud. He got a chance to do every type of star-making role available to an actor, from Heathcliff to Rhett Butler to James Bond. But despite all of this, he just really never clicked with the audience for reasons nobody can figure out. Like maybe it’s some sort of gypsy curse or something, who knows.

Chris Rock is another example. Even Chris Rock will tell you that. Rock is a funny guy. I like Chris Rock. Personally, I thought he did a swell job hosting the Oscars. But I would never put Chris Rock in a movie. Most every movie he has been in has bombed. Again, it may be some sort of a curse. Maybe he’s related to Dalton.

There are other examples whom I shall not name because I don’t need to be ticking that many people off, but it is something to keep in mind. I’m not expecting much out of Men in Black III partly because Josh Brolin does not have a good record anytime he’s in a lead role (as opposed to supporting). Maybe he will break the curse.

Or maybe he needs to find the right little indie project. If he makes a move now, his name will still have pull with investors. Almost as much pull as Ron Jeremy.