Can stars still be counted on to create audiences for a movie in the New Hollywood?


       Not necessarily. In the old days of the studio system, just the mention of Clark Gable, Carol Lombard or equivalent stars on a marquee might have been enough to guarantee a good share of the huge weekly audience, regardless of the movie.  But nowadays a new audience has to be created for each movie, and just the name of a star may not be sufficient for that genesis.  Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, appeared in three films over the course of a single year: Titanic, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Celebrity. Titanic was the highest-grossing film of all time, earning nearly $900 million in worldwide theatrical rentals, while The Man in the Iron Mask earned only a fraction of that– $80 million– and Celebrity brought in a scant $3 million. The huge difference among the results may be accounted for by many variables– such as the differences in genres, stories, directors, roles, co-stars, or marketing campaigns– but the fact remains that there was no DiCaprio Effect; the appearance of DiCaprio could not, on its own, guarantee a large opening audience, even for two films that followed closely in the wake of one of the most successful films ever made.

Even Julia Roberts, today’s highest-paid actress, cannot be relied on to automatically draw a consistently large audience, as the numbers for her two consecutive romantic comedies illustrate. The first, My Best Friend’s Wedding, earned $127.5 million in theatrical rentals, while the second, Everybody Says I Love You, earned only $12 million. Same star actress, same genre, same romantic twist, same year– but one film drew ten times as many people to theaters as the other.

Audiences are fickle even when it comes to their favorite male stars, such as Tom Hanks, who gets up to $29 million a film. He also appeared in two proximate movies with vastly different results: That Thing You Do earned $14 million in theatrical rentals, and Saving Private Ryan earned in excess of $200 million. Or consider the back-to-back openings of two Eddie Murphy movies in 2002, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and I Spy. Although both films cost approximately $100 million to make, and in both Murphy is cast in the role of a civilian battling criminals, over twenty times as many people went to the opening of I Spy as went to The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
While a big name certainly helps to get a movie made, it isn’t enough, by itself, to create a huge opening weekend anymore.

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