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Hollywood tests the limit of marquee names a single film can hold

  • >> Brooks Barnes, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-12-27 16:22:28 BdST

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Billboards for “Don’t Look Up” feature Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, along Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif, Dec 16, 2021. Boldface names have always mattered at the movies, but a number of recent casts have been full of them — that hasn’t always helped at the box office. Mark Abramson/The New York Times

On Friday, Netflix began streaming “Don’t Look Up,” a big-budget satire starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Tyler Perry, Ariana Grande, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Timothée Chalamet.

It sure seemed like a must-watch event, mixed reviews be darned. Casts so ultracelestial — embarrassments of celebrity riches — don’t come along every day.

Except that now they do.

One star playing Spider-Man? How quaint. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” released in theatres Dec. 17, has three A-listers in Spidey spandex: Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire. “No Way Home,” a runaway hit at the global box office, taking in $1.05 billion for Sony Pictures Entertainment as of Sunday, also stars Zendaya, Jamie Foxx, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Willem Dafoe and Jon Favreau. About 43% of opening-weekend viewers in the United States cited the cast as the reason they bought tickets, according to PostTrak surveys. Twenty percent specifically cited Zendaya.

Guillermo del Toro’s latest art film, “Nightmare Alley,” stars Bradley Cooper, Blanchett, Toni Collette, Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Mary Steenburgen and David Strathairn. (They have 22 Oscar nominations for acting and three wins among them.) Other recent examples of star ensembles include “The French Dispatch,” “Red Notice,” “House of Gucci,” “The Harder They Fall” and the superhero story “Eternals,” which Disney marketed with 11 names above the title. (Angelina Jolie! Kumail Nanjiani! Salma Hayek!)

In the months ahead, Universal will release “The 355,” a spy thriller anchored by five female stars, including Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz and Jessica Chastain. Disney will roll out a starry “Death on the Nile” remake, and Focus Features is preparing “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” which reassembles the franchise’s ensemble cast. Netflix is working on “The Adam Project,” a science-fiction adventure (Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Catherine Keener), and “The Gray Man,” a thriller starring Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling, Billy Bob Thornton and Regé-Jean Page of “Bridgerton” fame.

“Someday, someone will decide to make one movie with two Batmans — oh, wait, it’s happening,” Terry Press, one of Hollywood’s top marketers, said with signature dryness. She was referring to “The Flash,” a superhero movie from Warner Bros. that is scheduled for late next year; Ben Affleck’s Batman will appear alongside Michael Keaton’s Batman.

Taken one film at a time, star amassment is nothing new. “Grand Hotel” (1932), “Thousands Cheer” (1943), “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and the entire “Ocean’s 11” franchise come to mind, not to mention Marvel’s recent “Avengers” movies.

All of a sudden, though, they are everywhere.

Why?

“Stars matter — always have, always will — and Hollywood retreats to them, leans harder on them, when it gets nervous about a wandering audience,” said Jeanine Basinger, a film scholar and the author of Hollywood histories such as “The Star Machine,” which examines the old studio system. “Stars are insurance — for studio executives who want to keep their jobs, certainly, but also for viewers: ‘Is this movie going to be worth my time and money?’ ”

Describing Hollywood’s customer base as “wandering” is rather kind. AWOL might be more apt.

The pandemic seems to have hastened a worrisome decline at the box office for bread-and-butter dramas, musicals and comedies — everything except leviathan fantasy franchises and the occasional horror movie. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” collected $260 million in the United States and Canada on its opening weekend. Total ticket sales for the two countries totalled $283 million, according to Comscore. That means “No Way Home” made up 92% of the market. “Nightmare Alley,” which was released on the same weekend, played to virtually empty auditoriums. It took in $2.7 million.

The vast majority of opening-weekend ticket buyers for “No Way Home” were under the age of 34, according to Sony.

Between Friday and Sunday, the Spider-Men remained the biggest domestic draw, taking in roughly $81.5 million. The animated “Sing 2” (Universal-Illumination) was second, with $23.8 million in ticket sales. Warner Bros. failed to generate much interest in “The Matrix Resurrections,” which took in a feeble $12 million in third place; it was also available on HBO Max.

“The King’s Man” (Disney), the third movie in Matthew Vaughn’s action-comedy series, collected $6.4 million, a result that one box office analyst described as a franchise “collapse.” (“American Underdog,” a faith-based sports drama from Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, managed $6.2 million on Saturday and Sunday alone.)

Streaming services have picked up a big portion of the audience, particularly older people. But competition among the services has grown extreme, with Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock, Hallmark Movies Now, BritBox and dozens more fighting for subscriber growth. Stars help: Netflix is writing megachecks for A-list actors ($30 million to DiCaprio for “Don’t Look Up”) and ensemble franchises ($465 million for two “Knives Out” sequels).

“Stars matter more than ever,” said Bryan Lourd, a Creative Artists superagent who orchestrated the “Knives Out” deal. “When stars meet material that is their fastball, it cuts through all the noise.”

There are other explanations for the barrage. In a severely disrupted marketplace, stars are seeking safety in numbers; no one person can be held responsible for failing to deliver an audience, as with “Nightmare Alley.” Movie marketing has also changed, becoming less about carpet-bombing prime-time TV with ads and more about tapping into social media fan bases. Grande has 284 million Instagram followers. (Pity DiCaprio and Holland, with only about 50 million each.)

Basinger, who founded Wesleyan University’s film studies department, noted that individual star power has faded. Studios have become fixated on intellectual property — preexisting franchises and characters. As a result, there has been less of a need to manufacture new stars and keep the older ones burning hot; Iron Man, Dominic Toretto, Wonder Woman and Baby Yoda are the stars now.

“In the old days, movie stars were the brands,” she said. “They reached the whole audience. Not a slice of the audience. Everybody. But that all fell apart. Now, it’s about adding up niches.”

In other words, few stars remain bankable in and of themselves, requiring Hollywood to stack casts with an almost absurd number of celebrities. Flood the zone.

And don’t forget Hollywood’s favourite game: Follow the leader. “The Avengers: Endgame,” which packed its cast with Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Olsen and a dozen other boldface names, became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time in 2019. On a much different scale, an all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2017 was also a box-office winner.

“It’s trendy at the moment,” Tim Palen, a producer and former studio marketing chief, said of what he called an “all skate” approach to casting. “Not new but certainly symptomatic of the battle for attention that’s raging.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company