Monday, February 25, 2008

The Last Movie Star?

There are many quantitative ways to measure the…hmmm, what’s the right word... brightness of a particular movie star. You can count Oscar nominations and box office receipts, magazine covers and Barbara Walters interviews.

But mostly it’s a feel thing. It’s this complex alchemy of critical acclaim, glamour, box office success – and perhaps most importantly, indelible screen moments. John Wayne framed in the door in The Searchers. Cary Grant chased by a plane in North by Northwest. Jack Nicholson poking his face through a crack in the door. Tom Hanks on a park bench.

Then there is George Clooney. Clooney seems to have inherited the mantle of the supernova movie star. One way you can tell he’s being groomed to replace Jack Nicholson as the Zeus of the Hollywood Olympus is the deference he is paid at awards events. He’s the guy that the emcee and the other actors give a shout out to from the stage, that the camera constantly seeks out. Last night on the Oscar red carpet, Regis Philbin gushed that it used to be "everyone in this town wanted to be Cary Grant, and now they want to be George Clooney”.
And this week's Time magazine has a cover story titled "George Clooney: The Last Movie Star" in which the author says "this guy...really is a movie star. Maybe the only one we have now."

The only one we have. Wow. There's one teensy-weensy problem, though, that nobody seems to have noticed. One tiny little thing missing from the George Clooney is the World's Biggest Movie Star storyline...nobody watches his movies.

O Audience, Where Art Thou?
Since 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, George Clooney has been in 20 movies. Five of them have grossed more than $100m at the box office:

Ocean’s Eleven: $183m
The Perfect Storm: $182m
Ocean’s Twelve: $125m
Ocean’s Thirteen: $117m
Batman & Robin: $107m

But only The Perfect Storm, released during the Clinton Administration, can truly be called “a George Clooney movie” in the way that, say, Forrest Gump is “a Tom Hanks movie” and virtually every Tom Cruise movie is, in fact, “a Tom Cruise movie”.

Batman & Robin was the pathetic remnant of a once-proud franchise – plus top billing went to a true box office king, Arnold Schwarzenegger. O11 was a genuinely big hit (though it barely edged out Jurassic Park III at the box office) – but Ocean had an ensemble cast that featured a proven movie-carrying superstar, Julia Roberts, not to mention Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. O12 and O13 were lame sequels that fans of the first movie (including this one) were duped into seeing.

After those five “hits”, things get really bad.

The next top-grossing film in the Clooney filmography is Three Kings, which in 1999 did $60m at the box office. How good – or bad – is $60m? It was good enough for 39th place in 1999, just behind She’s All That and ahead of Bicentennial Man.

Mind you, this is one of George’s big hits. His next biggest hit, Syriana,took in a $51m, good enough for 56th place between Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
And so on. The nadir was 2006’s The Good German. Despite the presence of his Ocean director Steven Soderbergh, as well as Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Spiderman Tobey Maguire, it did a grand total of $1.3m at the box office. How bad is that? I don’t know because the site I’m getting my data from, Box Office Mojo, only tracks 150 movies per year, and German didn’t come close to cracking the top 150. But let's put it this way: Gigli did six times better.

Feet of Clayton

Perhaps the surest sign that movie fans aren't particularly interested in George Clooney's movies is the failure of Michael Clayton. Clayton was lavishly reviewed – and not in a highbrow, “this movie is important but baffling” way (like Syriana), but as a compelling legal thriller with knockout performances. It was heavily-marketed. It was even released twice – in early October, when it bombed the first time, and again after the Oscar nominations came out.

It had everything it needed to succeed. Advertising support, critical acclaim, Oscar nominations for three cast members, and, you know, George Clooney, "the world’s only movie star". It should have been his Erin Brockovich ($125m). And yet, with $48m at the box office, it came in 55th place, in between two movies I’ve never heard of (This Christmas and Premonition).

What is A Movie Star?
Being a movie star isn't just about the box office - but the box office is a big part of the mix because it shows how you connect to audiences. As to artistic achievement, I think he’s a charming enough actor, albeit with the limited range one usually associates with handsome leading men. I thoroughly enjoyed some of his minor hits, especially Three Kings and the very underrated Out of Sight (the best movie made from an Elmore Leonard novel). And I appreciate some of the risky choices he makes.

But there is a huge disconnect between the praise he receives and the almost total indifference with which audiences greet his movies. Further, he has yet to make an iconic movie - think Tom Hanks with his 90's trifecta of Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, and Saving Private Ryan. Does Clooney have even one movie that has made an impression the way any of those three did? In fact, does Clooney have a cinematic moment to rival scenes from Apollo 13 (Houston, we have a problem.) or Castaway (Wilson the volleyball) or even Big (Hanks and Loggia dancing on the keyboard).

And how about Will Smith? Since 1996, he's made 13 movies:

Independence Day: $306m
I Am Legend: $255m
Men In Black: $251m
Men in Black2: $190m
Hitch: $179m
Pursuit of Happyness: $164m
Shark Tale: $161m
I, Robot: $145m
Bad Boys II: $139m
Wild Wild West: $114m
Enemy of the State: $112m
Ali: $58m
Bagger Vance: $31m

Wow. Only one flop (though it didn't flop as badly as Solaris or The Good German or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or...). The only other sub-$100m movie, Ali, garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He was also nominated for Happyness). Billions in box office. Multiple Oscar nominations. That, my friends, is a movie star.

There are many more actors who have a better mix of critical and commercial success. Russell Crowe. Denzel Washington. Even the much-maligned Tom Cruise had 7 straight $100m flicks before Lions for Lambs flopped. The 3 Mission Impossible films did about $100m more at the box office than the 3 Ocean films, and Cruise carried them by himself. Even Vanilla Sky did $100m.

Now What?
George Cloooney seems like a great guy to get a beer with, but he may be the most overrated person in the most overrated profession in the world. So what's next? The Ocean franchise has been sucked dry. His next movie, Leatherheads, well, you can check out the trailer and decide for yourself...

My guess is he'll remain popular, due to the interest in his personal life, his ridiculous good looks, and his masterful treatment of the press (read the Time story; the writer's got a serious man-crush on George). But I suspect it will be years before anybody but the readers of FreeTime and a few worried Hollywood executives will even notice that George Clooney is not the world's only movie star. In fact, he might not qualify as a movie star at all.

Update: I hate to pile on here but I had a thought. Clooney’s box office reputation, such as it is, depends almost entirely on the Ocean franchise. As I pointed our earlier, he hardly carried that franchise by himself, what with Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Catherine Zeta-Jones and others kicking in.

To make it worse, though, I compared Ocean to some other popular trilogies starring actual movie stars.

Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones trilogy: $618m
Tom Cruise/Mission trilogy: $529m
Matt Damon/Bourne trilogy: $524m
Clooney et al/Ocean trilogy: $425m

The Ocean trilogy is the only one of the bunch that declined in box office receipts each step of the way (Bourne is the only one to go up each step up of the way; MI went up, then down; Jones went down, then up).

And except for Sean Connery in the 3rd Indy flick, only the Ocean flicks relies on multiple movie stars.


Anonymous said...

So, by the same rationale, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan couldn't be considered legitimate NBA stars becuase the average road attendance for their games runs somewhere around 10th in the league. Please, there's no question that Clooney is a bonafied superstar. Is he the last? Of course not.

Unknown said...

The thing about Clooney is that he's making movies that will stick in the cannon of important films for decades to come.
His success (or lack thereof) shouldn't be measured by box office take... Could Will Smith's Wild Wild West be remembered in any other company besides Howard the Duck? Yet it grossed over $100 million. What does that say about the tastes of the US movie-going audience?

Clooney may not be the best actor around. He's often been accused of playing every part the same way. But between the movies he's starred in, directed or produced, he has amassed a wide-ranging catalog that shows his interest in making movies that may not be common ground for all people. I admire that.

Jiri said...

I agree with Jonh. I'm sure that one of the reason that not so many people watch his movies is the fact that they are not made for mainstream US movie goers.

Anonymous said...

The difference is that Smith makes more profitable movies teenagers want to see and Clooney makes movies with an older-skewed audience. There's nothing wrong with either's choices, but in the Serious Movie Thinker crowd, Smith's successes aren't counted the same way. Or, conversely, Clooney is given more credit as a movie star because since Batman & Robin he hasn't cashed in and made a lowbrow action movie.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1,

Yes, in fact your rationale is exactly correct. Nowitzki and Duncan are not NBA stars. They are NBA players. Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Kareem, etc., those are STARS. Those are the guys that people come to see - road or home.

Much the same as George Clooney is an actor, not a movie star. It is possible to be in a heavily star-laden profession and not be considered a star. It happens all the time, no? Otherwise, your rationale would be that some schmoe running the mom and pop coffee shop down the street has the same star pull as Bill Gates or Donald Trump just because the own/run a business.

Anonymous said...

"The thing about Clooney is that he's making movies that will stick in the canon of important films for decades to come".

Yes, like his greatest work, Return of the Killer Tomatoes. (I'm not even kidding. That was a great movie.)

Nate said...

Clooney's gold. He's not the only or the last movie star, there's just a notably classic feel to him. He has the kind of effortless grace and wit we associate with an older idea of what it meant to be a star.

Will Smith is no slouch, either; I think he should be justifiably proud of a number of his movies. But he doesn't convey the same easy savoir faire that Clooney does.

Peter said...

Check this:

chriscain said...

Taking the whole quote/thesis in context:

"Maybe the only one we have now. There are plenty of huge box-office draws (Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Johnny Depp) and even more famous celebrities (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Lindsay Lohan), but no one besides Clooney is so gracefully both."

I think his being a famous celebrity with grace (admittedly an esoteric, subjective quality) compensates for any deficiency in the box office aspect of the Time story's formula of a Movie Star.

Derek said...

I think it's much simpler than all this analysis. I suspect that if you asked a whole bunch of people, men or women, in America (or Canada, where I'm from) to name a current "movie star," a significant chunk of them would answer "George Clooney" without hesitation. I think I would.

Anonymous said...

I don't care how much money his movies are making -- and he may not either. I respect Clooney for making interesting and relevant films instead of popcorn movies.

Hal said...

Sorry for the late reply -- I saw a link to you from kottke, and this has been rattling around ever since. The thing is, I've found a star who has a comparable track record in box office, and who I think few people would disagree is also a movie star.

Michelle Pfeiffer.

Yes, she's faded somewhat recently, but that's mostly due to our sexist, ageist society.

(For comparison, Clooney's numbers.)

But I also agree with the assessments above... Clooney isn't making choices to max out box office. Intolerable Cruelty is probably the most piercingly accurate satire of "Hollywood" since Swimming With Sharks (The overrated The Player, while enjoyable enough, is not as accurate as either of them). The one-two punch of Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck may be the most patriotic set of films of the last decade. Solaris plays with its world so well that most people (and critics) come out siding with the sole identifiably crazy person in the story. Those aren't conventional choices, but they're certainly nothing to be ashamed of.