For decades, it was hard or even impossible to get a movie made by a major Hollywood studio without having a name star attached that could help sell their movie, doing the junkets and talk show rounds, etc.
When those name stars won’t do much press, we see what happens, as this week’s dark comedy/thriller Suburbicon and last week’s thriller The Snowman are bombing badly while having name actors like Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Michael Fassbender on board.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and New Line horror film It is one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, surpassing all other horror movies and achieving a level of success that few name actors have been able to achieve. So far, it has grossed $321 domestic, which puts it ahead of the first Iron Man and Transformers movies, as well as some of the Harry Potter, Twilight and Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That’s while having a much lower production budget than any of them, and with the most well-known actors in the cast being Jaeden Lieberher and Finn Wolfhard.
The closest George Clooney has come to $300 million (domestically anyway) was Gravity, a movie in which he basically has an extended cameo. Tom Cruise? Nowhere even close.
Granted, you can stick just about any actor in a superhero or franchise movie, and they’re likely to have that sort of success, but horror continually proves that with the right premise and proper marketing, not having big name actors can actually benefit the movie.
Horror movie franchises like Annabelle and Jigsaw are being sold based solely on their “villains,” for lack of a better word, then whatever actors they’re terrorizing, and the same can be said about It, where more people went to see the movie for Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise the Clown. (According to a recent poll, it’s one of the popular Halloween costumes this year, too.)
Two weeks back, Universal Pictures’ Happy Death Day did very well with the main star being Jessica Rothe, who previously had a small role in La La Land but was otherwise unknown. But it had such a great premise and that premise was marketed in a way that younger moviegoers felt the need to check it out.
The film’s producer, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse, already had made a name for itself with the Paranormal Activity movies. They were meant to be “found footage” movies, so having lesser known actors made them far more believable in a similar way as The Blair Witch Project, the originator of the “found footage” trend.
This may also be the reason right there why one doesn’t need a Tom Cruise to sell a horror movie. In fact, having a Tom Cruise or Russell Crowe in a movie like The Mummy (also released by Universal) can take away from why moviegoers might be interested in seeing that movie in the first place. (Hint: It’s because of the mummy.)
When you have a bigger name star like Naomi Watts or Kate Beckinsale leading your movie, you might think their star power would bring in fans of their previous work. The problem is that true horror enthusiasts rarely believe that a big name star could possible be killed off in their own movie, which is movies like Shut In and The Disappointments Room came and went with barely a notice. (Beckinsale eventually couldn’t even get the fans of her Underworld movies to return for a fifth movie, so that was clearly a premise that had run its course.)
There have been some great exceptions to this rule, sure, like Ethan Hawke in Sinister and The Purge, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in the first two Insidious movies, and of course, Wilson and Vera Farmiga movies in The Conjuring films. These are great examples of having solid and experienced dramatic actors helping to sell audiences on the premise and the scares within a horror-thriller. And sure, if those moviegoers already know these actors’ previous work, then even better.
Genre fans are surprisingly knowledgable and savvy about filmmakers and actors and the movies they’ve made, and they know that actors like Farmiga and Hawke and Wilson don’t just take whatever garbage is thrown their way. They know these actors are fairly discerning in the roles they take, especially when it comes to genre flicks, and that they’ll be bringing their A-game to anything they’re required to do, regardless of the size or budget of a film.
If you don’t believe me, look at the career of Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, who made his feature film directorial debut with Warner Bros’ House of Wax remake in which the biggest name star was Paris Hilton. A few movies later, Collet-Serra made the thriller Orphan with Farmiga and what she brought to that otherwise silly movie made it a favorite among genre fans. It also helped Collet-Serra to be taken more seriously, so when he approached serious Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Liam Neeson to be in his 2011 action-thriller Unknown, it was far easier to convince him, because he had worked with Farmiga. Collet-Serra went on to make three more movies with Neeson. Thanks to Taken, Neeson is another exception to the rule when it comes to name actors and genre films, because he’s found millions of fans who love him in action mode.
There’s a lot of big changes going on in Hollywood right now, many of them for the better, and the focus away from starpower onto having solid premises, good storytelling and scripts is making it easier to have hits with smaller budgeted genre films than used to be the case. At the same time, putting name actors in poorly-made thrillers like The Snowman or some of the others mentioned, is doing a great disservice to everyone: the actors, the director and also to the fans who would rather see an up and coming actor being terrorized, tortured or scared senseless than Tom Cruise pretending to be.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor