It’s not so much Brooks Barnes’ argument on the front page of The New York Times this morning (“Starring in Summer’s Big Hits, Virtually Nobody”), it’s how he defends his argument.
The argument itself is a no-brainer. Yes, not many stars are in the summer’s big hits. Yes, for the most part, characters-driven movies (Harry Potter, Optimus Prime), and concept movies (“Paul Blart,” “The Hangover”), trump star-driven movies.
But Barnes proves his point by comparing this summer to 2000 and 1990. Why not be mathematically correct and focus on 1999 and 1989?
Because then he’d highlight how little has changed. The big summer movie of 1989 was “Batman,” which, while it had Jack Nicholson in the Joker’s role, was, again, a characters-driven movie. People went more for Batman than Jack. A decade later, the big hit of 1999 was “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the fourth film in the series that, you could argue, marked the beginning of the end of the star-driven movie.
Barnes also overdoes his argument—which doesn’t need much overdoing—by lumping together, or having executives lump together, all of the star-driven movies that disappointed at the box office this summer, including Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” and Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies.” The problem? Both were directors’ films rather than stars’ film. They were perceived that way and marketed that way. And they were serious films, and serious rarely does well in summer. And “Public Enemies” didn’t do that poorly—it’s near $100 million domestic—which, even adjusted for inflation, is the sixth-highest-grossing Johnny Depp film. As famous as he is, Depp is still more actor than star to me. If he’s playing a character people like—Captain Jack—sure, they come out in droves. Otherwise, it’s “Dead Man.”
This raises another point. Weren’t star-driven movies always characters-driven movies? Fans went to see Bogart being Bogart, Redford being Redford, Cruise being Cruise. When they deviated from those roles, box office dropped.
Something is happening, surely, with moviegoers and their loyalty to stars, but the discussion the topic deserves wasn’t on the front page of today’s New York Times.