Summer Stars Get By With a Little Help From Their Friends
By Ethan Gates '12, A&L Section Editor
Ten years ago, domestic box office figures were dominated by star vehicles, flashy flicks meant to show off the unique talents of a certain actor or actress. Tom Hanks and “Cast Away” made $233.6 million. Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible II” was good for $215 million. Russell Crowe in “Gladiator:” $187.7 million. And on, and on. Ben Stiller, Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage; all these stars guided their films past the $100 million benchmark, based on little more than personal magnetism.

But that was 2000, and this is 2010. A glance at this summer’s box office results reveal a subtle but game-changing trend in Hollywood filmmaking: ensemble pieces are now the name of the game. Sure, a few A-list stars have held on to their clout (Angelina Jolie going all Jason Bourne in “Salt” was a winning formula, and young Jaden Smith seems to have inherited his father Will’s mojo), but audiences’ appetites are no longer sated by just one or two big names. No, to get that true cinematic experience nowadays, audiences need something more like nine or ten.

The obvious example would be Sylvester Stallone’s bloody, bursting-with-testosterone action romp, “The Expendables,” which was the number one film in the nation for two weeks. Affixed with an official seal of approval from the Governator himself, a picture like “The Expendables” functions on the simple maxim: bigger is better. Truth be told, Hollywood has always lived by those words, but for the most part the “bigger” applied to the size of explosions, budgets and breast implants. Not since the heyday of the disaster movie in the early 70’s (“The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure”) have studios so thoroughly relied on expanded, star-studded casts to bring in the big bucks.

Of course, large ensembles, especially in summer tent-pole films, tend to walk an extremely fine line when it comes to plot coherency and credible character development; the inevitable tension between a film’s total running time and the number of contractually-obligated close-ups can become too much even for a talented director to handle. Take “Iron Man 2,” Jon Favreau’s follow-up to one of the most thoroughly entertaining superhero films ever (fanboys, take it easy, “The Dark Knight” is still in another class altogether). Loaded down by what seemed like a dozen new faces to squeeze into his established universe, Favreau could only produce some passable popcorn fare, failing to recapture the spark that drove his original (not a good sign for Marvel’s planned 2012 crossover superhero extravaganza, “The Avengers”). I love seeing Samuel L. Jackson throw down some fightin’ words as much as the next guy, but if it gets in the way of Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow riffing some old-school screwball comedy, I can wait until “Snakes on a Plane 2: Snakes on a Train.”

Did I mention incoherent plots back there? Then let us not continue any further on this subject without giving “Inception” a mention. My feelings on Christopher Nolan’s latest vacillated from one viewing to the next (they currently reside somewhere around “very good, not genius”), but it can’t be denied that whatever your opinion on the director’s tomfoolery, the extensive cast of “Inception” was one of the film’s greatest strengths. One can’t help but wonder if the studio was more willing to bet the bank on a completely original brain-twister like “Inception” because of the potential to bandy about so many familiar names during the marketing campaign: Leonardo DiCaprio! Ellen Page! MICHAEL CAINE!!!

The presence of more than a few star actors is not immediately bad news, then. Any factor that eases the production of risky, challenging films like “Inception” is to be welcomed. And if the studio making the film is Pixar Animation, it’s pretty much impossible to go wrong with tacking on another famous voice or two to your already-overflowing stable. Even if you can only afford to give him two lines, it will be worth it to forever see the role of “Mr. Pricklepants” listed on Timothy Dalton’s IMDB page.

However, if you want to replicate the financial success of those films (at the time of this writing, $404.5 million for “Toy Story 3,” $265 million for “Inception”), there is a trick: make sure that your audience has actually heard of the members of your all-star cast. Poor Edgar Wright and Universal Studios learned this the hard way with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” whose box office disappointment could partly be explained by the general ignorance of most filmgoers to the considerable comedic talents of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin and Aubrey Plaza. Without a famous supporting cast, Michael Cera + video games = $23 million (for a point of reference, “Vampires Suck” breezed past that mark in roughly two weeks).

You want more evidence that Cruise and company have been usurped? Get this: even independent cinema caught on to the idea of going ensemble-heavy this summer. The cast of “The Kids Are All Right,” a wonderful, pitch-perfect family dramedy, read like a who’s-who of high-brow icons and indie up-and-comers, and probably has at least two acting Oscar nominations already in the bag (for Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, if you’re interested). Meanwhile, “Winter’s Bone,” a searing, gritty modern odyssey set in the Ozarks, featured many a “that guy.” I know, I know, indies have pretty much always been reliant on well-rounded ensembles in the past, but you have to admit, that was a pretty good way to fit those films into this article.

It remains to be seen whether the A-list can make a comeback. Since individual stars have driven the industry ever since the days when Charlie Chaplin first waddled on to the silver screen, one suspects they will. But the summer of 2010 will be remembered as the season when a $9 movie ticket demanded 9 washed-up action heroes in return.

Issue 01, Submitted 2010-09-02 16:16:05