‘Amsterdam’ And ‘Babylon’ Prove It: Movie Stars Can’t Sell Tickets Like They Used To

Ask a hundred directors if they’d accept a cast including Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, and Rami Malek.

The answer will be the same every time. Yes, please. And they might imagine a box office smash along the way.

Except such a film opened last year, “Amsterdam,” and no one went to see it. That’s an exaggeration, but only a small one. The movie earned just $14.9 million at the U.S. box office, meaning it’ll cost its studio nearly $100 million.

“Amsterdam” flopped despite its starry cast, and it’s far from alone. Robbie joined Brad Pitt last year for “Babylon,” another A-list affair directed by “La La Land” auteur Damien Chazelle. It flopped, too.

Recent Oscar-bait movies featuring Cate Blanchett (“Tar”), Timothee Chalamet (“Bones and All”), and “The Fabelmans” (Paul Dano, Michelle Williams) all died at the box office.

Movie stars may adorn late-night TV, magazine covers, and more. Many draw millions of followers on social media, something unavailable to actors like John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn.

What they can’t do in 2023 is guarantee fannies in the seats like the movie stars of yore.

Even Dwayne Johnson’s “Black Adam,” a superhero adventure starring one of the few actors with a near-sterling box office resume, didn’t earn enough last year to warrant a sequel.

Modern Hollywood is all about the IP – the intellectual property. It’s not Pitt, Tom Hanks, or Margot Robbie. It’s “Transformers,” “Super Mario Bros.,” or “Harry Potter.” Brand recognition is now the coin of the realm in Tinsel Town, and it explains why studios greenlight projects with questionable film value.

Is anyone clamoring for this summer’s “Barbie” movie? Did we need to see a naval adventure based on the “Battleship” board game in 2012? Does it matter who dons the red and blue Spider-Man suit, so long as the web crawler’s heroics remains the same?

Established brands will always draw eyeballs, but movie stars routinely did, too. What changed?

Technology, for starters.

The Internet lets stars connect with fans like never before. We can see stars luxuriating in their homes, follow their fashion faux pas on Instagram and watch them on YouTube. And that’s when they’re not appearing on talk shows, magazine covers, or other media platforms.

They’re everywhere, and therefore less special. It’s no longer an event to see Tom Hanks at the Oscars like it was to see Jack Nicholson grinning from the front row. We’ve already seen Hanks on a half-dozen talk shows and magazine covers.

The modern actor is more eager to stretch, to grow beyond his or her screen persona. John Wayne played rugged heroes, cowboys, and other white hat types. He knew his brand and rarely strayed from it. Audiences, in turn, knew exactly what they’d get when they paid for a Wayne movie ticket.

Today’s actors routinely stretch from film to film. Jim Carrey conquered Hollywood with comedies like “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber, but he longed to tackle dramatic fare like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Modern stars are also more open about their political views, and it’s costing them at the box office.

Old-school actors, by comparison, were tightly controlled by their respective film studios. Their images were protected by marketers who kept scandals off the front pages and ensured their images remained as spotless as possible.

Cary Grant didn’t opine about the latest headlines, even if he had firm opinions on any given subject.

That’s no longer the case. Most stars are intensely political, reliably progressive, and often toxic in their rhetoric. That intensifies during an election cycle, as does the heated commentary.

The result? Roughly half the country feels insulted by Celebrity Nation, and they’re far less eager to pay good money to see their latest films.

There are exceptions to the era of the fading movie star, but the group is shockingly small. Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” electrified audiences in 2022, part of the actor’s consistent box office legacy. Johnson, notwithstanding the 2017 dud “Baywatch,” has proven a reliable draw across original and rebooted properties alike.

Kevin Hart’s comedies also draw a crowd, but he spends more time of late starring in Netflix originals like “Me Time,” “The Man from Toronto,” and “Fatherhood.”

Movie stardom can still move the needle in smaller ways. The video on demand market thrives when recognizable stars grace Blu-ray or streaming images. It’s one reason Bruce Willis shot so many low-budget films before his declining mental health forced his retirement last year.

Names like Willis, Nicolas Cage, and John Travolta still matter when people watch movies at home.

That doesn’t translate to the big screen.

Line up the biggest stars in the Hollywood galaxy today. They’ve all delivered box office clunkers. Hanks’ lineup includes “The Circle,” “A Hologram for the King,” “News of the World,” and “Inferno.”

George Clooney? His 2022 “Ticket to Paradise” revitalized the rom-com last year, but he also flopped in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Leatherheads,” and “Money Monster.”

The movie star era may be gone for good, but there are still some ways celebrities can win back some of their clout. Try following in Cruise’s footsteps, for starters. The actor recorded an introduction to “Top Gun: Maverick” thanking audiences for returning to theaters following the pandemic.

Later, after the sequel scored a whopping $1.48 billion at the global box office, he shared a video stunt from the set of “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning” along with a thank you message for fans who made “Maverick” a smash.

Cruise also stopped over-sharing his personal life and mostly avoided political dustups in recent years.

That old-school brand of Hollywood marketing – direct, sincere, and targeted to the folks who indirectly pay their salaries – might undo some of the self-inflicted wounds of the modern movie star era.

Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, movie critic and editor of HollywoodInToto.com. He previously served as associate editor with Breitbart News’ Big Hollywood. Follow him at @HollywoodInToto

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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