A tonal shift is starting to take place. Film goers actually seem to be avoiding bad movies. Look at the dismal performance of last weekend’s Fantastic Four, frontloaded with up and coming stars. Terminator: Genisys, poised as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback to his most successful franchise, has not even been able to muster $100 million domestically, which means the $170 million film has flopped hard. Last year’s worst film, Transformers: Age of Extinction starring Mark Wahlberg, a usually hot draw, was by no means a box office failure, but its success came from foreign markets that have been anxiously waiting a film of this magnitude. Domestically, it is by far the lowest grossing Transformers film to date and its poor reception has called into question whether a fifth installment is a worthwhile risk at this point.
As studios try to continually franchise their blockbusters, they put as many big names into their films hoping known stars can draw audiences the way Nestle draws people to cheap chocolate. As seen by the films mentioned above, this does not seem to work as well anymore. It seems film fans DO care about the quality of the film they are about to spend their hard earned money on, regardless of the franchise name or the stars who are in it. In other words, they do put a price on their entertainment. We only need to look at the fifth installments of two blockbuster franchises that came out last month: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and Terminator: Genisys. The former has risen to box office glory while the latter will fall into the catacombs of the dvd discount bin by this time next year.
Tom Cruise, arguably the biggest movie star in the world, has had three straight underperformers. Jack Reacher, which turned off many fans of the book who imagined the character as a big, burly, tall brute as described by author Lee Child; Oblivion, a poorly reviewed homage/copycat of every sci-fi film ever made; and Edge of Tomorrow, a great film that was overlooked due to a poor marketing campaign. Each of these films placed a heavy emphasis on the presence of Cruise. But the films themselves did not look very appealing. I even admit that the only reason I saw Edge of Tomorrow in theatres was because my trusted friend from Warner Bros told me how awesome it was.
Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t had a hit since he left politics and it’s not for lack of trying. He’s very active on social media, holding AMA’s on Reddit, posting great material on Instagram, making viral videos out of surprise appearances, and even promoting charity benefits with his new tank. There is no doubt that this man has a fanbase. But that fanbase has not translated into box office returns. His first lead role since he left office, The Last Stand, came in at number ten. Sabotage, directed by David Ayer (Fury, Suicide Squad) went straight to video in Canada. And even his team up with Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan couldn’t garner more than a whimper at the multiplex.
The success then of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation can only be minimally attributed to Tom Cruise’s star power. Cruise has been able to raise eyebrows by promoting the film, but his angle is on the fact that he performed his own stunts. Knowing that Cruise actually strapped himself to a plane and that plane actually took off, or that Cruise and co-star Simon Pegg were actually driving the car they crashed down a Moroccan highway, creates a lot more audience intrigue than if it were just Cruise acting like Tom Cruise. The marketing campaign also cleverly concealed many of the film’s best scenes, which helped create the kind of memorable movie-going experience needed to generate the word of mouth that helped The Ring move from #2 to #1 in its second week of release. Overall, the film has not been perceived as a game changer but it’s the movie to see at the moment.
Terminator: Genisys launched a teaser trailer that focused on marketing the villainous T-1000 as a throwback to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then it launched an official trailer that stupidly revealed John Connor as the villain, and then tried a last ditch effort to use James Cameron – the creator of the first two films – as an endorsement because he enjoyed it. It’s not that film fans were unaware of Genisys. It’s that they sensed it as a generic mess trying to use the Terminator name as a launching pad while bringing nothing new to the series. Arnold has also done himself a disservice by being so active on social media. His friendliness to the public and willingness to say any line from any movie you wish kind of removes the appeal of his movies. Back in the 90s, we paid to see Arnold fight crocodiles, Satan, terrorists, and other machines while reciting classic lines like “you’re luggage” or “you’re a choir boy compared to me.” But if we can get this kind of charisma online and for free in a video lasting two minutes, do we really need to pay $20 to see two hours of it?
The question then remains of how much a star can carry a film to box office glory. The answer is a resounding not much. Gone are the old school Hollywood days when a Humphrey Bogart movie opened simply because it starred Humphrey Bogart. The same could not be said when Will Smith used his name to open After Earth, because audiences steered clear when they saw M. Night Shyamalan was the director and that Smith was using the film to kick start his son’s acting career. Even the reliable name of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson couldn’t help Hercules. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation succeeded because it is a good film (I’d argue it’s a perfect film). Terminator: Genisys failed because it was a bad one (I admit to liking it, but I can’t argue with those who didn’t). There might be a small percentage of the film going audience who see a film because of a certain star, but that percentage seems to be getting smaller and smaller. When Pirates of the Caribbean made its debut in 2003, Johnny Depp could open any film that featured him. Now, Depp can’t even open a Pirates film because fans have also grown tired of that franchise.
The truth is we still need stars to sell films. Film fans want to see names they recognize, particularly if these names have proven themselves to give great performance after great performance. After all, if the acting is not believable, the film is not believable. But today, that’s not enough. There is a reason why James Bond has been able to survive for decades, or why The Fast and the Furious is on its 8th film, or why Paramount has already greenlit a sixth Mission: Impossible. It’s because film fans believe that these franchises are still capable of meeting the standards set by their predecessors. The same cannot be said for the Terminator franchise, which has been experiencing diminishing returns since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and not even its star – who arguably became a star because of this role – has been able to restore it to its original glory. So yes, audiences do have a say in the kind of movies that get made. If Fox puts Fantastic Four 2 into production, they’d better be ready for another write off.