Are you drawn to box-office draws?

Could you plug anyone else into these star roles and get a hit?
Could you plug anyone else into these silhouettes and get a hit?

By Stacey Harrison and Karl J. Paloucek

Karl: I’ve never been a terribly big Tom Cruise fan. Yes, he has done some good work, and I have enjoyed at least a couple of his films over the years, but neither he nor Cameron Diaz — whose relative success has admittedly puzzled me since her There’s Something About Mary days — have ever enticed me into a theater of my own accord. Knight & Day hit theaters this past week, starring both Cruise and Diaz, two big box-office names that probably don’t sway as they once did their respective publics, as the weekend box-office tallies attest. It brings up the question: Would you, at this point, go see a movie for which the premise does nothing for you, if it stars a favorite actor? Or, for that matter, not go see one that did interest you because an actor you didn’t care for was in it?

Stacey: I never thought that the really hot girl in The Mask would be headlining potential summer blockbusters 16 years later. As for whether she’s deserving, who’s to say? But it’s been awhile since I’ve been drawn to a movie specifically because of its star. I mean, back in junior high you would have had to elbow your way past me to get into the latest Van Damme or Seagal epic. While that sounds like I’m taking a crack at my former self, there’s also a comment in there about how stars eventually become little more than brand names. “Oh, this is a Will Ferrell movie, so I can expect this and this.” It’s about whether you like what you’ve been conditioned to believe that star is selling. That probably played a part, in fact, in the success of one of the movies that beat Knight & Day this weekend, Grown-Ups, which starred a bunch of Gen X-era Saturday Night Live favorites. People knew what they were getting with that movie because of who was in it. Of course, Hollywood has become far more obsessed with high concepts than big names lately, what with the current sequel/remake/superhero craze, so the currency a star holds has drastically shrunk.

In short, no, an actor is not enough to get me into a theater. Although, when Marlon Brando was shooting a cameo for Scary Movie 2 (which he later had to drop out of), I was contemplating going to see that. I mean, how could you not?

Karl: Well, I’m not really a fan of seeing great actors embarrass themselves later in their careers …

Stacey: That’s where you and I differ, pal. When Daniel Day-Lewis starts doing National Lampoon’s movies, I am so there.

But anyway, I’m also quite susceptible to hype, but that comes mainly from wanting to be in on the conversation about who should win the Oscar (or a Razzie), and at least being able to understand that skit that will eventually show up on Saturday Night Live. Plus, part of the joys of movies is getting swept up in the hoopla. I was the kid who anxiously awaited Premiere magazine’s annual issue counting down what it predicted would be the top 20 box-office hits of the summer. Of course there’s manipulation involved, but that’s the case in even the best movies — yes, even ones you would call “films” or “cinema.” They’re all about manipulating your emotions and pulling the heartstrings.

Karl: I have to say that I’ve never been a big name-follower in terms of onscreen talent. There are many fine actors whose work I genuinely like and whom I regard highly. (I’ll admit that a good number of them are dead — and if, say, Steve McQueen managed a starring role at this point without the aid of heavy CGI, I’d probably be willing to pony up the bucks to see whatever film it was, if only to witness his Lazarus moment.) But in all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever said to myself, “Yes! So-and-So is in a new movie! I have to see it!” I also realize that that’s just me. For many people, a big name can be a major draw. I’ve probably seen twice the number of Johnny Depp movies than I ever would have voluntarily seen, for example, without my wife’s enthusiasm. (For that matter, I probably wouldn’t have seen the Deppster in person had she not insisted on attending the opening of Public Enemies, but that’s another story.) I don’t mind it in the slightest. I think Depp is an excellent actor and probably the greatest Movie Star — yes, the caps are intentional — since Cary Grant’s departure from the screen in the mid ’60s. But neither his magnetism nor any personality (or looks) of either gender has emitted a strong enough of a siren call to lure me into a theater.

I absolutely agree with you on the branding of certain actors and their projects, Stacey. There are a lot of names that fall into that category. Will Ferrell is a good example, as are almost any of the Saturday Night Live cast that have gone on to work in films. A few try to brave a breakout from our expectations, with varying degrees of success. Adam Sandler made the move with Punch-Drunk Love, but then quickly found his way back onto familiar terrain with Mr. Deeds. Bill Murray tried it early on with his role in the adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and didn’t quite succeed, but eventually found his way into a brilliant second act in the films of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, though that brilliance might be debated in the popular forum.

Stacey: I have to break in here real quick. I once interviewed Carrot Top, and he told me his long-term goal was to break into serious acting, a la Robin Williams or Bill Murray.

Karl: You must be joking. That’s fantastic. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who would pay to see that. But that brings me to a related question — what does sway people to shell out the bucks to see a movie they want to see? For me, it’s much more likely who’s behind the camera in the director’s seat. I’ll actually happily go see just about any of Anderson’s or Coppola’s films, as mentioned above — though I did take a pass on Coppola’s Marie Antoinette after seeing a preview, as I didn’t think I could bear to look. (I was right, as it turned out.) I’ll go see the elder Coppola’s work as well, still take a chance on Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen if they create something that looks interesting, and certainly if I hear that there’s someone new who’s doing something really vital, I’ll do my best to drop all expectations and go with eyes wide open.

When it comes down to it, though, for me, expectation is the key word when it comes to what drives me to or repels me from going to see a film, whether it’s expectation from a director, an actor, a producer or even a composer doing the score. (Yes, I’ve gone to see at least a few films for the music, I’ll admit.) More often than not, it’s — well, maybe not defiance, but at least the credible suspension of my expectations that will lure me in. As much as I might like a screen talent’s work, with rare exception, if the current film out in theaters smells like it’s just going to be more of the same, I feel much less urgency to see it on the big screen. (That said, in many cases, I end up seeing the films anyway in the course of my work here, but I think you understand my meaning.)

Stacey: Directors are definitely a factor for me. The biggies like Scorsese, Allen (though he’s mostly a rental for me these days), Christopher Nolan, they’ll be enough to warrant at least one viewing. And a few will keep me away like the plague (Take a hike, Brett Ratner). As for actors, I have to think long and hard before I watch anything with Ethan Hawke in it. He’s been in some great stuff — Gattaca, the Before Sunrise movies, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — but he’s just got this hipster douchebag manner about him that makes me doubt he was acting much in Reality Bites. Then there are his forays into directing, which include an eyes-bleedingly dull movie called Chelsea Walls and an adaptation of his own pretentious-artist novel The Hottest State. You have anybody like that, Karl?

Someday, I'll let this go. But not today.

Karl: We don’t have enough space for that list. Really, though, I don’t know. I’m not so thoroughly wired that way. I have my aversions to certain actors, for sure. The Virgin Suicides partially excepted, Kirsten Dunst is a “meh,” for me. Keira Knightly, as well, though I really wish someone would get that woman a sandwich or six. Currently, though, the guy whose face and name has most worn out its welcome is Jonah Hill. I enjoyed Superbad and Knocked Up well enough, but man, as much as I understand the impulse to strike while the iron is hot, there’s also something to be said for craftsmanship in your work and producing something worthwhile. I could say the same thing about Seth Rogen, as well. I’m not impressed enough with either’s output enough to justify their reputations. But again, I realize that that’s probably just me.  I do have something of a natural aversion to hype. Not that I necessarily have to avoid it, or whatever is being hyped — really, in this job, that’s not possible — but I find that what I like to do, if I’m at all curious about a movie that obviously has a lot of dollars behind it and enough buzz to compete with the suburban symphony of lawnmowers outside, is to see it well after the hype has subsided, when the crowds are gone, the atmosphere is cleared of Happy Meal deals and other product tie-ins, or if it’s a more “grown-up” film, let the unspoken hipster-credibility due date long expire. Then I feel I can judge the work on its own merits and see whether it was a legitimate phenomenon or just more smoke and mirrors — and I can do so quietly, without the occluding noise of others’ discussions in the press, online or on the street.

I still feel left with the question of what impels us to go to the movies we do see in the first place. Whether it’s the not-so-cleverly edited previews we see or other advertising we respond to — the pace, the implied excitement, the manner in which something is marketed to us. But we’ll get to that argument soon enough, I’m sure. I can’t wait.

Stacey: Like most things, there is no one answer. But I think you can rule out stars most of the time. Take the massive phenomenon that is Twilight. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson both have plenty of non-Twilight work out there, but has any of it mattered one whit to the screaming droves that will pack multiplexes this weekend to see Eclipse? Bella Swan fans didn’t exactly camp out to see Stewart play Joan Jett in The Runaways. Nor did the Team Edward crowd make Pattinson’s Remember Me a hit. Same with the Harry Potter kids, who have yet to make much of an impact outside Hogwarts.

The stars are just part of the package, and while I’d never discount them completely, they must work in conjunction with the fantasy of concept, special effects and yes, sometimes even character and story.

Take a look at the biggest box-office hits of all time. Avatar, Titanic, The Dark Knight, Star Wars … these were not star-driven vehicles. What made them hits was the experience they promised.

Karl: Well, that and what they delivered