There is just tons and tons of information in this New York Times article about action movie actors. Heck, just in these two paragraphs alone:

Once upon a time, a movie poster needed to have only two words on it: the star’s last name and the title. Stallone: Rambo. Schwarzenegger: Terminator. In the new action-hero economy, though, actors rarely carry the franchise; more often, the franchise carries the actor. Chris Hemsworth was little known before “Thor,” and no one outside the industry was too familiar with Henry Cavill before “Man of Steel.” Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced “Transformers” and this winter’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” told me that studios were gambling on unproven actors for economic reasons. “These movies cost a lot to mount. Adding on the big movie star’s salary is the thing that makes you go, ‘Boy, I don’t know if I can afford it.’ ” Perhaps no movie typifies this model better than the 2006 mega-hit “300,” an adaptation of Frank Miller’s popular comic-book series, which featured inexpensive and little-known actors like Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender and then catapulted them to stardom. This week, the film’s producers are trying to replicate that success with a sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” which is anchored by the unheralded Sullivan Stapleton and 299 other equally fit, anonymous men in leather skirts.

There are now more indistinguishable, barrel-chested, eight-packed aspiring stars than ever, and they’re all hoping to become the next Hems­worth or Cavill. Nikki Finke, the former editor of, describes the modern casting process as a “bake-off.” “They’re looking at seven actors. You’ve heard of two of them. . . . They all have names like Joe and Josh. It’s impossible to keep them straight.” The longtime action-movie producer Avi Lerner said: “Every day I get phone calls from two or three agents in big Hollywood agencies. They’re always telling me about some new client that is going to be the next Tom Cruise. One in a hundred becomes a movie star.” And the competition is only getting tougher. “There’s going to be an implosion,” Steven Spielberg warned last spring at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, “where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” By the summer, that crash already seemed to be happening: “R.I.P.D.” and “Turbo” bombed, joining other megabudget flops like “After Earth,” “White House Down” and “Pacific Rim.” “The Lone Ranger,” for which Disney paid an estimated $375 million, made less than $261 million worldwide. “Eight years ago, there were roughly 150 wide-release movies,” says Mark Gill, the president of Millennium Films. “Last year, there were 115. My prediction is that it will be down to 50 in the next couple years. And there will be fewer tent poles.”

I remember when they were searching for the next Superman, a couple of aborted Superman attempts ago, that I thought to myself that a Superman movie can make a star out of anybody good. Why waste money buying someone who is already a star?

Casting is actually across the board with stars and relative unknowns becoming the big heroes. The next Batman is Ben Affleck, after all, starring alongside the previously anonymous Cavill. Each case is different, though you would actually sort of expect there to be a pattern of some sort. The juxtoposition of Affleck and Cavill, playing two of the most well-known of superheroes, pretty much says it all. Then second-tier heroes like Thor are also given unknowns like Hemsworth next to Edward Norton as the Hulk. It seems to me the smartest casting goes on the basis “The bigger the character, the smaller the actor.” You might need Downey to sell Iron Man, but you don’t need Affleck (or even Bale) to sell Batman[1].

I would suggest that this works beyond superheroes, too. The cited Conan failure was a miscalculation, in my view, of the value of the Conan property. Ahnold was the star there and not the character and they needed a bigger star to play that role. That doesn’t mean that recasting or taking a chance on an unknown is a bad idea, but expectations (and overall budgets) should be adjusted accordingly. The article mentions rebooting[2] Transporter without Jason Statham. It was Statham that made the series, but if the plan is basically for a Redbox release, that’s probably not a bad idea. Fast & Furious survived Vin Diesel’s (temporary, it turned out) exit, so you never know. Just don’t bet the farm on it.

The overall picture presented of the movie industry is somewhat depressing. Predictable, but depressing. I like my superhero movies and movies based on properties I am interested in, though there is such a thing as excessive caution and I Hollywood seems to be reaching that point. Actors fees themselves have played a role, as the more a movie spends the more cautious they need to be. The movie industry is facing more competition than ever, from everything ranging from television to piracy to (it seems to me) more movies than ever being made. That seems likely to perpetuate the “Go big or go pretty small” model I have been predicting (though hasn’t come to fruition… yet).

[1] It seems odd to me when they surround an actor with bigger stars. A nobody playing Superman, but recognizable actors below the headline. Bale playing Batman, but Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. I suppose that does make some economic sense because getting Freeman to play a smaller part does put the movie on some radars. I suppose I just haven’t gotten used to it yet.

[2] I would consider the replacing of actors to be a more positive development if it were used differently. I think they ought to make some of these superhero movies with ten films in mind. I’d always assumed the hold-up was the increasing cost of actors and an unwillingness to replace them (it was a big deal when Keaton was replaced, for example). Marvel gets this and has been working towards it, though DC hasn’t. With actors being less of an issue, I wonder if it’s not directors that are the issue. Each one wanting to get a fresh take on the character.

Category: Theater

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