New York magazine has a fascinating feature this week on the shift over the past half-decade in the movie industry from big budget films marketed around big ticket stars to big films marketed around familiar, branded stories and special effects. The result writes Claude Brodesser-Akner is that fans are never likely to see again the combined cast members of a major box-office success such as X-Men Last Stand since the stars simply cost too much.
Instead, with a franchise and brand established, Marvel and Fox Studios re-launched the series with an “origins” story X-Men: First Class. New actors, less pay, but still big box office, hauling in $55 million over the weekend in the U.S.
Marvel, of course, plans a second Wolverine movie but in this case Hugh Jackman is the lone actor getting a big pay day as opposed to a half-dozen from the original X-Men films. And as Brodesser-Akner describes in the article, Marvel’s upcoming, star-studded Avengers film saves money by limiting the screen time of big salary stars like Robert Downey Jr and maximizing the screen time of Thor played by still emerging star Chris Hemsworth and Captain America played by the still culturally nascent Chris Evans.
Here’s two of the key nuggets from the New York article:
“I wouldn’t even pitch an original idea anymore,” says Christopher McQuarrie, who, lest we forget, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1995 for The Usual Suspects. Most recently, he wrote the Wolverine sequel at Fox. “What [studios] want is — through no fault of their own — a piece of pre-existing material that’s survived some sort of a litmus test, like a graphic novel. It’s kind of ironic, because the number of copies that a graphic novel has to sell to be wildly successful in no way forecasts what or how a movie is going to open. But it creates a visual template on which the movie is based. Someone in marketing can look at that, and say, ‘We’re selling this.’ An original piece of material is a complete gamble.”
And if a cast gets too expensive, well, Hasta la vista, baby! Reboot or prequel-ize, refresh the brand, expand its universe, and, most important, bring in cheaper actors who won’t gobble your profits.
“The reason why they didn’t make another X-Men after The Last Stand is that it would have been too expensive,” insists Last Stand’s director, Brett Ratner. “For that matter, that’s why another Rush Hour 4 probably won’t get made, either: It’d be too much to pay me, Chris [Tucker], and Jackie [Chan] to come back.”
Fox declined to comment on its development, but a studio insider familiar with the development of X-Men: First Class agrees with Ratner’s assessment, explaining, “The success or failure of these movies is in the back-end participation.” If you pool the paychecks of First Class stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult, they likely don’t add up to what it would cost to get, say, Mark Wahlberg, who usually commands $10 million and 8 percent of the gross.