The Best Bang for the Buck

As 2012 comes to a close, it becomes time to take stock and look at where the movies are headed. It seems as though there are two types of movie being made in Hollywood: franchise movies, i.e. movies that are an extension of a pre-existing powerhouse brand (such as The Avengers, Twilight, Hunger Games, X-Men, Harry Potter, Bourne etc.), and everything else. Outside of awards season, non-franchise movies are starting to feel like a rarity. Every studio, and consequently every agent, manager and entertainment lawyer, is on the hunt for a new franchise for the extremely simple reason that they make tons and tons of money. But when you get down to the individual actor, and what he or she might be worth at the box office, how crucial is the franchise to a successful opening? Who are the stars capable of delivering with or without a franchise banner?

First a little context: Breaking Dawn Part 2 cost a reported $140 million to make and has grossed $751 million worldwide to date (it's currently #3 at the box office); The Avengers cost $220 million and has pulled in over $1.5 billion; the final installment in the Harry Potter franchise (released in 2011) cost a reported $125 million and its worldwide gross is over $1.3 billion. That makes things look pretty bleak as far as breaking a truly original cinematic story; but in examining the impact on star power, let's look at two of this year’s surprise hits, Magic Mike and Ted. Channing Tatum’s semi-autobiographical male stripper movie was made for an estimated budget of $7 million (thanks to some very clever contract structuring) and to date has grossed $165 million worldwide. This was Tatum’s break-out year, and his solid work ethic has paid off—his other two movies in 2012, 21 Jump Street and The Vow, each made almost $200 million.

Ted became a sleeper hit over the summer, and then an outright smash as it crossed the $500 million mark worldwide off an estimated budget of $50 million. To date, it is the highest grossing original R-rated comedy of all time. Ted’s box office success came from the combination of a profane teddy bear and Mark Wahlberg—another talented, highly relatable guy, who has built an A-list career without ever having been part of a franchise. Not only did he have Ted in 2012, but he also starred in Contraband, which made $96 million world wide on an estimated $40 million budget. 2011's The Fighter was not only another feather in Mr. Wahlberg's cap financially ($125 million off a reported budget of $25 million) but it saw an Oscar-winning turn from franchise favorite Christian Bale. Wahlberg is now set to join the Transformers behemoth for round four, but he also has several other films opening next year. One of these is 2 Guns, in which he plays opposite Denzel Washington, an actor who's had an epically successful career without ever having appeared in so much as a sequel.

So what about the movie stars who are most closely associated with the monster franchises? How do they perform outside of their brand wheelhouse? Robert Downey Jr., who is both Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, managed a hit with 2010’s Due Date, which made $212 million worldwide on a $65 million budget. Conversely, the new Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, is not looking so hot at all outside the franchise arena, with a streak of movies ranging from underperformers (Unstoppable, This Means War) to outright bombs (People Like Us). Twilight's Robert Pattinson has a similarly rocky track record outside of his home territory (see: Remember Me, Water for Elephants). Interestingly, the great Johnny Depp does not fare so well without Disney behind him: Dark Shadows and The Rum Diary may be Johnny being Johnny, but they didn't make any money.

But, you might be asking, what about the world’s biggest movie stars, guys like George Clooney and Brad Pitt? They don't have franchises, and they must pull in the crowds. Well, let's look at the numbers for Clooney's last three movies: The American grossed $66.9 million world wide with an estimated budget of $20 million, The Ides of March grossed $74 million world wide on an estimated budget of $12.5 million, and The Descendants grossed $178 million world wide on an estimated budget of $20 million. Using the rule of thumb that a movie's actual return is its gross minus two times the budget, then The American made $26 million, The Ides of March made $50 million, and The Descendants made $138 million for a grand total of $214 million.

Now on to Pitt’s last three movies: Killing Them Softly has grossed $30 million world wide (it has not yet left theaters) on an estimated budget of $18 million, Moneyball grossed $110 million world wide on a budget of $50 million, and The Tree of Life grossed $62.3 million on a budget of $32 million. Applying the same math as before, Killing Them Softly has made $4 million, Moneyball $10 million, and Tree of Life made $1.2 million, coming to a combined total of $15.2 million.  

By comparison, using that same math, Channing Tatum's last three movies performed thusly: Magic Mike made $151 million, 21 Jump Street made $104 million, and The Vow made $116 million, coming to a combined total of $371 million. That's $157 million more than Clooney and $355.8 million more than Pitt. And for Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter made $75 million, Contraband made $16 million and Ted made $400 million for a whopping total of $491 million. Mr. Wahlberg's net comes to $277 million more than Clooney, and $475.8 million more than Pitt.

So is it the star or the franchise that people will pay to see? The raw numbers could make the argument for "content is king"—people already love books like The Hungers Games series, so why wouldn't they go see the films regardless of who's starring? But let's just pause to ask why this great content can't start its life as an original screenplay? As of this writing, both Ted and Magic Mike are rumored to have sequels in the works, so it might be the case that both Wahlberg and Tatum have pulled off the incredible feat of creating franchises organically. This is no easy task these days: The Hangover films seem to have done it, but the odds are long against another Die Hard or Alien springing up (in part because they keep making Die Hard and Alien movies). But just maybe you don’t need a ready made franchise in order to have a box office hit. Maybe all you really need is a decent script and talented actors who are a reliable draw in movie after movie.