Saturday, 4 January 2014

Forbes "Movie Value" List

From the Telegraph

The lack of gender equality in the film industry was again apparent in Forbes' 2013 Best Actors for the Buck list, with women making up the top 40 per cent of the list.
Emma Stone, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman were found to give the best return to studios on account of what they were paid to star in blockbuster films. Forbes calculated the average amount earned by each star's last three films based on box office data and DVD sales. They then set this aside the research for their Celebrity 100 list, which calculates the salaries of the rich and famous.

The problem with this Forbes list is that it distorts the value of stars.

People generally go and see movies for the following reasons:-
1) A familiar star (e.g. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Judi Dench movies).
2) A familiar property or story (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Romeo and Juliet)
3) A familiar director (e.g. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese)
4) A familiar studio in certain genres (e.g. Aardman, Pixar, Studio Ghibli)

In shorthand, Tom Cruise, Lord of the Rings, Quentin Tarantino and Aardman animations are brands. Of all of these, the biggest sellers are stars, properties and studios. Directors is generally a smaller thing.

It's actually really hard to have a successful movie without one of these brands. It happens occassionally, but a film has to be really loved by an audience to get word-of-mouth that brings more people in. These are known as "sleeper hits". A film like Memento ticked none of the boxes, and so opened on a tiny number of screens, but ended up playing 500 screens and making $40m on a $5m budget.

It also means that when you've got one of the big 3, you really don't need any of the others. Pixar can make a film using any voice actors they like with original stories. A Tom Cruise film can be an original story. And a story like The Hobbit is filled with actors rather than stars because it doesn't need stars to sell the movie (although the reason that various Lord of the Rings characters pop up that aren't in the book is to sell it to an audience familiar with those movies).

Which brings us back to the Forbes list. The reason why Emma Stone scores so highly on the list is because she is one of the main cast members in the Spider-Man stories. But what brings an audience into a Spider-Man film isn't the cast. It's the property, and things like the production, special effects and so forth. Which is why she got paid around $1m for the film and Julia Roberts gets $20m a film. The value in a dreadful Julia Roberts vehicle is the dreadful Julia Roberts.

Of the others on the list: Mila Kunis was in the sleeper hit Ted, which featured Mark Wahlberg on the poster (and therefore he's the star and not her), and Black Swan, which featured Natalie Portman on the poster (so she's the star, not her) so again, she's not the money. Jennifer Lawrence was in The Hunger Games, and that was sold on the back of a successful book, although I think Lawrence was good value for that film is it relies so much on her performance, and she was brilliant at Katniss Everdene. And Natalie Portman scored highly because she didn't take much from Black Swan,but is a star (there's a whole other article on stars taking a pay cut to do Woody Allen/Darren Aronovksy performances that win awards)

The list overemphasises the effect of actors on a film's success, when actually, films are generally more down to the writing and direction. And it's a common assumption by filmgoers that their favourite actor is a measure of quality, when actors have far less control over the final product than producers and directors.

6 comments:

Derek said...

Good summary, TS. I haven't seen it analysed like that before but what you say makes a lot of sense.

Mark Wadsworth said...

That would be fun - trying to reverse engineer the spreadsheet which the number crunchers in Hollywood use to decide what mix of franchise, film stars, genre, director and budget etc to use when making a film.

DBC Reed said...

All rather depends on the notion that the value of a film can be determined by economic rather than artistic factors .By economic/materialist criteria those people who write verse in greetings cards are this country's best poets.Perhaps the only good American film in years was MUD which was carried by two boy actors .There is also the odd case of the several good films made out of Texas which is high local property tax, no local income tax state.

Pablo said...

Erin Brockovich is a great film.

The Stigler said...

Derek,
Ta

Mark,
It's too complex for that, especially as stars, directors and property owners often have non-financial demands.
There's a story that Steven Soderbergh wanted to make Ocean's 11 in black and white, and the studio told him he could have a $7m for black and white or $70m for colour.

DBC,
I'm not saying that at all. It's just trying to expose the problems of the Forbes list.
There's a lot of films that struggled at the box office that are IMO very good, but just struggled to reach out to an audience.

Pablo,
I liked Erin Brockovich, but was Julia Roberts doing anything but playing a slightly louder version of the same character she always plays?

DBC Reed said...

@TS
I doubt your basic premise that word of mouth is the determining factor. A lot of people read the reviewers who big up some obscure (by all your criteria) films.Philip French did a major review of Mud . Word of mouth may account for more bums on seats for teeny-beanery films which are all monsters ,imaginary worlds, special effects and shallow one-dimensional characterisation.