03/04/2013 06:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Movie Stars Aren't an Endangered Species, They Are More Vital Than Ever in the $200 Million Fantasy Tentpole Era

For more like this, go to Mendelson's Memos...

There are $200 million fantasy spectaculars opening within two weeks of each other at the moment.  If the $27 million opening for Jack the Giant Slayer is any indication, Warner Bros. is about to have its very own John Carter/Battleship ($70 million domestic finish, around $250 million worldwide at best).  Conversely Walt Disney has let the embargo wall fall for its Sam Raimi-helmed Oz: The Great and Powerful, which is allegedly tracking to open at around $75 million.  There are a number of reasons why Sam Raimi's fairy tale-redux is prime to perform better than Bryan Singer's such attempt. For one thing, I can take my daughter to the one that isn't PG-13 and doesn't involve giants biting peoples' heads off and/or setting them on fire.  Also helping is the strength and confidence of Disney's marketing versus Warner's "we know we laid a financial egg" trepidation.  But perhaps most importantly, Oz: The Great and Powerful has actual movie stars.  What?  I thought the era of the movie star was gone and the proverbial movie star was a relic of a bygone era?  Well... it's actually only half-true.

Oh sure, James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis aren't "box office" per se, but they are known and relatively liked entities.  They have several Oscar nominations between them, look good doing press, and make it that much easier to convince grown-ups to sit through a 127-minute prequel to a 74-year-old film that they've hopefully gotten around to showing their kids by now.  Jack the Giant Slayer has Nicolas Hoult (nice actor, fine in Warm Bodies, but "Who?"), a complete unknown as the female lead (Eleanor Tomlinson), and a handful of "names" that may be recognizable but don't add one cent to would-be viewer interest in the realm of general/casual moviegoers.  Look, I've been a fan of Stanley Tucci's since Murder One, but he's no more of a draw than Ewan McGregor or Ian McShane.  I'm not saying that your fantasy picture is DOA if you don't have the star power of a Johnny Depp or a Will Smith, but you need someone... anyone of note to get people interested in that $200 million fairy-tale re-imagining.

Want to know why Alice In Wonderland made $1 billion three years ago?  Well, aside from the whole "3D is *so* hot right now!" thing, it was a $200 million sequel to a beloved story that happened to star Johnny Depp (movie star!) and Anne Hathaway (movie star!) while being directed by Tim Burton (as far as directors go, movie star!).  Want to know why Snow White and the Huntsman made $400 million last year?  Was it because everybody wanted to see a dark-n-gritty Snow White film?  No, it was because Kristen Stewart is a movie star, Chris Hemsworth was coming off The Avengers, and Charlize Theron added a certain promise of dignity and/or class to the proceedings (false promises, but I digress).  Having a classic fairy tale to rework and $150-200 million worth of special effects is great, but it helps to have people onscreen that audiences actually like to see onscreen.  Kristen Stewart may not turn On the Road into a blockbuster, but she has a huge fan base that flocked to see her in a medieval action fantasy that happened to be called Snow White.

It's not just the concept or the stars.  It's not an either/or situation anymore.  For these prices, it has to be both.  The concept helps, but it's the concept combined with actual stars in front or and/or behind the camera that differentiates John Carter from Avatar.  Yes, I'm damn well counting director James Cameron as a movie star, and in this respect you should, too.  Tim Burton and James Cameron are indeed true behind-the-camera movie stars. Bryan Singer is not a name beyond the film nerd community and neither is Sam Raimi.  Sometimes the concept is king, as it was with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, although both filled their initial installments with somewhat recognizable actors and British prestige in order to assure newbies that they were in good hands.  Even in an era where "concept is king," concept alone won't justify blockbuster budgets.  You gotta have the kind of people who will attract the potentially unconverted.

Movie stars are still important in the selling of their films, especially ones that need to be blockbusters. They are the ones who show up on magazine covers and appear on talk shows that reach the "unwashed" cinematic masses. They may not be the main course, but they remain vital seasoning to the blockbuster stew.  Oz: The Great And Powerful will open better than Jack the Giant Slayer at least partially because it has bigger and "better" movie stars filling its $200 million fantasy arena. It will earn more because it stars James Franco than it would if it didn't, and I'd argue it would have made even more with original picks Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. After Earth will make more because it stars Will Smith than it would have if it starred pretty much anyone else, and truth be told, it will make more because it's an M. Night Shyamalan film (it's complicated, but I'd argue he's still a name worth noting).

Alice In Wonderland would have made far far less had it been directed by someone less famous than Tim Burton and/or didn't star the likes of Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway. And Battleship would have made quite a bit more with actual movie stars as opposed to (sorry Kitsch) glorified CW stars, super models, and pop stars in the lead roles.   The idea that movie stars are dead is a frankly false one, it's just a more complicated situation.  If you're going to spend $150 million-$200 million on your tent pole, you'd better have at least a couple of "movie stars" in front of or behind the camera.  Because without a bulletproof concept and/or people on the poster who actually draw in general moviegoers, you've probably just pissed away $200 million.