Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Curious Case of Tom Cruise and The Fall of the Star System

editor's note: First, I want to apologize to Jim Carrey. I didn't mean to make an example of him in so many cases.

An oddity of film school turns out that you can wind up sitting through lectures on stuff like "The Star System". It's kind of goofy to study something anyone who has ever had an Entertainment Weekly subscription basically gets, and you can point out a million logical fallacies around the concept, but you're talking about an industry that thinks the logical lesson to learn if a documentary about penguins is a surprise hit is to flood the market with penguin movies for two years because PENGUINS ARE HOT!!!

The Star System is basically what you might think: Hollywood believes that people will pay big money to see a particular actor, no matter what junk they put on screen. And, in the 1990's, this certainly seemed to be true. Sure, we were seeing the end of the Action Star era, where guys like myself didn't really care what the plot was to the latest Schwarzenegger movie, all we knew was that Arnie in a movie meant fireballs and mayhem, and that was worth $6.00.*

But the 90's also saw the rise of folks like Julia Roberts commanding vast salaries and Jim Carrey taking down a whole studio when they agreed to pay him $20 million for the less-than-hit, The Cable Guy.

Because the movie industry seems to base decisions upon fear and a train of logic that's a circular roller coaster, the studios loved the star system. No more guessing whether a story, effects, marketing or other factors would draw in an audience. Just point a camera at Jim Carrey mugging and flailing, and then print yourself some money.

The idea was, of course, horrendously flawed. It basically suggested that audiences were looking to see the same actor/ character in film after film. But, you also had stars taking on vanity projects that nobody wanted to see (any non-comedy project by Jim Carrey**), and Hollywood trying to create insta-stars (see: the tragic rise and fall of Alicia Silverstone).

By 2002, things were already starting to get a little shaky. Then, movies like Spider-Man, which featured semi-known actors like Tobey Maguire were suddenly raking in lots and lots of money and the star system started to give way to "what existing commodity can we adapt?" and who was actually playing The A-Team or Ghost Rider really didn't matter so much. Studios would rather try to sort out what's the next Spider-Man and keep the dough in their own pockets rather than give it to some unpredictable talent. That said, The Matrix caused some confusion and Keanu Reeves was considered for virtually any role he liked for a brief while there.

If I had to guess, kids under 18 might go see a movie based upon the talent, but these days, it seems they're mostly following Hannah Montana from TV to the movies (to paying thousands for live show tickets). But I'm guessing the older than high school set is far more likely to follow concepts, rather than "stars". After all, in the age where everyone is one good YouTube clip away from being semi-famous as "the guy who falls off the roof", how big of a deal can many of the "stars" really seem to be? Tom Cruise is the couch jumping guy. He's in the same category as the "Chocolate Rain" fellow. Why would you pay for that? And success in one film doesn't necessarily translate (see Kristen Stewart's box office in Twilight versus The Runaways).

So what the hell is going on that Hollywood can't seem to let go of Tom Cruise? And why do articles keep appearing with the writers fake-surprised that Cruise didn't have a boffo opening weekend in his 90's-looking, by the book action flick (Jesus, Tom. Give us a robot or something we can look at.)?***

From the amount of coverage Cruise and folks like Angelina Jolie get in the tabloids, you'd assume that the projects these people worked on had much higher viewership and ticket sales. But that certainly doesn't appear to be the case (name two people you know who are looking forward to Jolie's summer film, Salt.) These actors are in some bizarre twilight fame, where they can move tabloids, but nobody actually cares about their day job.

Fame is ephemeral. The stars of yesterday are rarely the same folks people line up to see today. And, honestly, unless you're one of a very select club (let's call it The Sean Connery Club), most stars weren't able to command box office until they chose to retire or wind things down. See: Sunset Boulevard. Does the machine need to believe it can control itself enough that it so desperately wants for Cruise to continue to reign the box office after doing so since I was in middle school?

At some point the gradual decline of popularity hits everyone in Hollywood. So why the ink over Cruise's flop?

And at what point do you quit writing articles asking why people aren't going to see a movie by a guy who people kind of quit going to see in movies before the whole couch incident? And maybe start asking why you'd spend money on a guy who hasn't had a big hit since Mission Impossible II in 2000?****

Like everyone else, I absolutely have actors I like. The presence of one of these trusted actors in a movie will help get me in the door much more than having no idea what to expect out of an actor I've never heard of, or seeing an actor who has built up a resume of work I'm no longer willing to take a chance on (Robin Williams). And I can sort of guess that a movie is less likely to suck if Catherine Keener is going to appear rather than, say, Paris Hilton. But I am not rushing to see a Keener movie just because she's in it. And I'd suspect that's largely true of how things operate for most folks these days.

Somehow, like all bubble economies, the star system bubble burst. And trying to put Tom Cruise back up on the wall seems like the scrambling of a part of the decaying Hollywood that (a) is unwilling to let go of a system that sorta used to work, and (b) has absolutely no idea why people go to the movies in 2010.***** But why can't the press quit asking questions to which we know the answer? Or is it that they really want to know: what happened to the star system?

It would seem that people just no longer care if they see a movie featuring Tom Cruise. There's nothing in the water. The guy had a good run. We saw his range. We even sort of laughed at his crazy movie producer schtick in Tropic Thunder (it was funny but... don't milk it, Tom). It's okay. At some point we quit caring much if all kinds of actors were in movies (have you seen what Harrison Ford is willing to do these days? Yeesh.). Go gracefully, sir. To a generation of people, you were cool in Top Gun, and then, you know, okay in other stuff, for, like, 20 years.

Hollywood: Please stop trying to save Tom Cruise's career. He is done. I'm sorry. That's how it is.****** And your little ads suggesting that everything else this summer was dumb kid stuff, but Tom Cruise doing that "let's win over the Moms" smile and riding on the hood of a car is for adults, suggesting this thing is classier than A-Team? It's not. And @#%$ you.

I am sure Tom Cruise a nice man when he isn't making a jack ass of himself to Matt Lauer, but if he can't live with what he has now, I can only shrug. Perhaps it is time for Mr. Cruise to live through the narrative of Top Gun/ Days of Thunder/ Cocktail. He was the best he was at what he did, but now he's fallen on hard times. Maybe hitting bottom will make him realize what's important and propel him into winning the big jet fight/ car race/ booze slinging that is making it in Hollywood.

*No, seriously. I saw everything I could starring Arnie until I had to admit that, despite the addition of Vanessa Williams, Eraser had broken me. (I have even seen Jingle All the Way, a movie so oddly awful it passes into that very special category of Christmas Movies of the Damned.)

** yes, Eternal Sunshine is good, but compare its take to Liar, Liar. People want to see the wacky.

***And is it just me, or do you get the same feeling looking at this movie that you did when you saw the trailer for Six Days, Seven Nights? Or, worse, this summer's Ashton Kutcher/ Katherine Heigel action vehicle, Killers. Both movies hoping that we really, really want to see these actors, when... not so much.

****Upon reflection, its not too hard to guess that Cruise was following some bad advice on how to rebuild his career when he went haywire on Oprah. It just went very, very badly.

*****to see crazy crap that TV shows can't afford to do.

******he was technically done about ten minutes into "The Last Samurai".


Fantomenos said...

Yeah, I heard that Cruise had fired his publicist and hired a relative prior to the couch-jumping thing.

I've also heard that the only working actor who fits the definition of "movie star" currently is Will Smith, who's had a pretty amazing career since "Parents Just Don't Understand".

Personally? Actors who will guarantee I'll see the film? Pretty short list. Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Gonzo.

Seeing the film in the theater? You must be joking.

Simon MacDonald said...

I think that Hollywood is suffering from the same kind of thinking that the software industry has been guilty of for many years. You may have heard of the axiom "Nobody got fired for buying Microsoft". That just ensures that people never take risks or even think about purchasing decisions. This type of thinking works up until a point that it just doesn't anymore. The time of MS has passed.

It is worth noting that the axiom used to be "Nobody got fired for buying IBM". To me that means at some point in time someone took a chance on MS and then everyone decided to do the same thing.

I guess I'm trying, and failing, to draw and analogy between the current transition from the Hollywood star system to our new commodity system. Hollywood is at the point now where they won't take a chance on anything that doesn't already have a track record on TV, books or comics. This kinda works as long as they don't mess with what made the property popular in the first place. Poor, poor Jonah Hex.

Honestly, I've never liked Tom Cruise as an actor. There are many movies I just haven't watched because he's in them. I've never seen Top Gun completely. I've seen bits and pieces on TBS but that's about it.

I just looked Cruise up on IMDB and here are his movies I've seen start to finish:

Far and Away
A Few Good Men
The Firm
Mission Impossible
Jerry Maguire
Mission Impossible 2
Minority Report

That is about 6 more than I would have liked.

Nathan said...

Tom Cruise is as good a star metaphor as any big Hollywood gun for this post, but although a great many of his films aren't outstanding, I did want to point out a couple that I enjoyed that I didn't see on the list here.

Born on the Fourth of July: Now, it's been nearly 15 years since I've seen it all the way through, but I do remember being pretty impressed with Cruise's performance as Ron Kovic. A great story of personal transformation.

Magnolia: Cruise brings the internal pain that manifests itself outwardly with misogyny.

Vanilla Sky: Well, I think I'm one of about 29 people that likes this movie. He does a lot of acting behind a rubber mask. While not entirely successful, his role is kind of meant to simultaneously build the Cruise persona and destroy it.

The League said...

Tom Cruise, in roles and in life, sort of makes this face that lets you know he's got the moral upper hand. You saw it in A Few Good Men, and you saw it when he was dressing down Matt Lauer for being "glib". I sort of felt that "Born on the 4th of July" was two straight hours of "I'm Tom Cruise in crazy make-up making this face so you'll know how serious I am".

Not a terrible movie, but not outstanding.

Honestly, I never saw Magnolia (which I feel bad about), not Vanilla Sky (which I do not feel bad about).

But, yeah, "Vanilla Sky" was probably the canary in the mineshaft for folks to see that Cruise wasn't able to carry just any old kind of movie anymore.

Its certainly true that Cruise and other stars can appear in, support and provide something to movies that are not all about their role. But those movies aren't usually being made around the star, and its a different kind of picture than, say "Let's see Tom Cruise... as a samurai!"

Marshal said...

I just want to point out that all this crazy "sky is falling" crap is a little pre-mature for a film that took in 27 million opening against Toy Story III.

This movie's going to be very profitable, and probably quite watchable. Haven't seen it. I think Cruise 1) Shot himself in the foot trying to be the lead in "serious" pictures (which, as you point out, turn out to be serious embarrassments) 2) Is still capable of creating something large numbers of people will watch. In part because he's so damn watchable when he's not trying to impress you with his "serious" face.

I concede it's possible that the only reason I still favor Cruise is that I can't thank him enough for providing the only watchable moments in Interview with a Vampire.

The League said...

I have no particular bone to pick with Cruise. Watchable? Possibly. Profitable? "Knight and Day" reported costs of $150 million just to produce (that's before tacking on $10's of millions for marketing, and god knows what the real number was). Anything less than a $45 million domestic opening will have been far below studio estimates. Movies generally see a 50% drop off in week two, and are gone in 4 - 5 weeks.

Break even after Blu-Ray is a best case scenario at this moment, unless Asia decides this movie totally rocks.

"The sky is falling" is far from the intent here. It's recognizing a shift in what draws people to movies, not suggesting any disaster. I'm using Cruise as the most obvious target here, and asking why entertainment media writes fakes articles, mystified about a mediocre opening anyone could have predicted.

The Star System was deeply important circa 1995, and Cruise continues to perpetuate that model (and a narrative the entertainment media has been comfortable with since the 1920's), despite a lack of evidence that he provides the draw that can support the model. Or that ANY actual personality would be the force that sells tickets to support a $150 million dollar movie in 2010.

In many ways, the movie is a bellwether for what Hollywood will and won't be willing to risk money on in 2011. I am betting aging film stars and standard-issue action plots won't be it.

Also, I have no recollection of Interview with a Vampire other than that it was sort of boring and I may have hit fast forward through a large part of the middle.

Marshal said...

Your numbers look right. Maybe very profitable is an overstatement. If that's how much it costs to make this movie, then I agree with you more strongly than I did initially.

I still think opening against a Pixar movie in its second week is kind of idiotic, and definitely part of the problem. Which is another way of saying, "I am super impressed it did so well, when the only things the movie had going for it are Cruise and Diaz."

Perhaps you are right, though. My expectations for the movie were lower than Hollywood's, and that's a problem for them. If they were expecting a number one movie against Toy Story, that's kind of ridiculous.

Finally, I'll note that a lot of studio peeps are probably getting the wrong lesson from this weekend. They're looking at the strong numbers Grownups put up and thinking: "Hey, maybe Chris Rock and Adam Sandler aren't washed up!"

What's your theory for that movie's opening success, which had to have actually surpassed expectations?

The League said...

My theory: People like fart jokes and slap-sticky comedy. This movie promised that sort of stuff in spades.

Its also an interesting question between Stars and Trusted Actors. Certainly not every Adam Sandler (and especially not every Chris Rock movie) has been a raging success. I'd go so far to point to Sandler as at least semi-representative of the Star System ideal, but he seems to be adapting with an ensemble movie, and bringing in enough of his colleagues to make it work, somewhat like comedies like "The Hangover" have done, but which Sandler's "Funny People" failed to draw.

But when the guy can sell tickets to "You Don't Mess with the Zohan", he's a pretty darn good argument that I am wrong. And people like some really dippy stuff.