It's not a good time to be a movie star. There are several ways a movie can become a big hit, and right now, the franchise is the most successful, with 3-D animation films not far behind. If you stick the right name on a movie, the actors in the movie don't really matter that much. To be fair, if the people making Harry Potter tried to replace Daniel Radcliffe, there would be hell to pay, but Daniel Radcliffe outside of the Harry Potter franchise is a completely unknown commodity. Likewise, people really didn't flock to see the latest Ed Asner film or Reese Witherspoon feature this year, they lined up to see Up! and Monsters Vs. Aliens.
Let's look at just ten years ago, 1999.
1 Phantom Menace ____$431 mil
2 The Sixth Sense _____$294 mil Bruce Willis, M. Night Shyamalan
3 Toy Story 2 ______$246 mil (animated)
4 Spy Who Shagged Me $206 mil Mike Myers
5 The Matrix ______$171 mil Keanu Reeves
6 Tarzan _________$171 mil (animated)
7 Big Daddy _______$163 mil Adam Sandler
8 The Mummy _____$155 mil Brendan Fraser
9 Runaway Bride ____$152 mil Julia Roberts
10 Blair Witch Project ___$141 mil
Of the top ten, there are four movies marked in red that made big money because of the stars or in the case of The Sixth Sense, turned the director into a star. The Matrix became a franchise and Keanu Reeves has had some limited success in films outside that franchise, and the same can be said of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser. Only two animated films on the list, one of which was regular 2-D animation, and this list is completed by that unrepeatable anomaly The Blair Witch Project.
Here's the list for 2009 with about two weeks left.
1 Transformers 2 ___$402 mil Shia Labeouf
2 Harry Potter 6 _____$302 mil
3 Up __________$293 mil (animated)
4 The Hangover ____$277 mil
5 Twilight: New Moon _$267 mil
6 Star Trek _______$258 mil
7 Monsters Vs. Aliens _$198 mil (animated)
8 Ice Age 3 _______$197 mil (animated)
9 X-Men 4: Wolverine _$180 mil Hugh Jackman
10 Night at the Museum 2 $177 mil Ben Stiller
Clearly, all three movies marked in blue or red are parts of franchises, but the actors listed after the money have been in other big hits outside of these franchises. The only non-franchise (so far) is The Hangover, the most successful R-rated comedy of the year. None of the actors there are big stars yet.
I am going to make the arguments for and against Shia LaBeouf, Hugh Jackman and Ben Stiller being the biggest stars this year, and then make the argument for the person I think is the actual winner of this year's crown.
Is Shia LaBeouf a movie star? Not only was he the highest billed human in the Transformers movies, he was also in the latest and hopefully last Indiana Jones film. All of these were huge successes, but clearly sold on the franchise name. His best non-franchise outing so far was Eagle Eye, which made barely over $100 million. While I haven't seen any of his films yet, he is connecting with the younger audience.
Is Hugh Jackman a movie star when he doesn't have the claws? They let him host the Oscars and he isn't a comedian, so somebody thinks he is. His best commercial outing outside the X-Men so far has been Kate and Leopold. Even with bombs like Australia, Hugh Jackman is still going to get the chance to star in major features for some time to come.
Ben Stiller is a movie star, without question. Of the people mentioned from the top ten, he has the most live action movies in his career that have grossed over $100 million. It can be argued that he is the comic actor whose career is on the rise, surpassing Jim Carrey and Will Farrell, and in a few years he may overtake the career success of Adam Sandler as a box office star. Of all the actors mentioned, Stiller is the only one who doesn't give me hives.
But the box office champion for 2009 so far doesn't have a film in the top ten. Instead, Sandra Bullock has two films that are just outside the top ten, both grossing over $150 million, The Proposal and The Blind Side. One is a comedy and the other a sports tearjerker. This is a major comeback for Ms. Bullock, whose last live action movie over $100 million was Miss Congeniality in 2000.
While this bodes well for Ms. Bullock, you have to wonder how it bodes for the movie industry as a whole. In 1999, there were three top ten movies that weren't about special effects, and a fourth, The Spy Who Shagged Me, where the special effects were not the main ingredient. In 2009, that number is down to one. Only The Hangover is not a special effects film. As capitalism becomes about not just making money but making the most money possible, one has to wonder how many people will be making films for $20 to $30 million hoping to see $150 million at the box office and how many will be spending $100 to $150 million hoping for the $400 million blockbuster.