When the biggest box office draws are blue people and Optimus Prime, it is clear that the power of the “movie star” has faded.
Yet there is hope for Hollywood producers looking to score big at the box office: the perfect actor-director combination.
Studio executives will need to look for big-name and correctly-paired duos to fill the void left by the increasingly less profitable “movie star”.
Just ask Will Smith. Seven Pounds was Smith’s second film with Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino. The pairing was not a match made in heaven; it was the star’s first film not to crack the $100 million mark since Ali back in 2001.
On the other hand, the perfectly-matched Martin Scorsese and Leonard DiCaprio are box office champions for the second week in a row with Shutter Island. The fourth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio is their highest-grossing opening to date. The pair teamed up, to critical acclaim, in Gangs of New York, The Aviator and Best Picture Oscar-winner The Departed, for which Scorsese also earned his first directing Oscar. Marty has a knack for taking actors under his wing and turning them into the most recognizable, respected and bankable movie stars around. In just over two decades, Robert De Niro was directed by Scorsese in eight films, starting with Mean Streets in 1973 and most recently in 1995’s Casino.
The relationship between a director and his or her actors is an important one. Ultimately, a successful collaboration should make movie-goers and audiences want to see more films by the pair. Tim Burton’s unique style seems perfectly fitting to Johnny Depp’s ability. It’s no surprise that of Burton’s 14 wide releases, half star Depp. The two understand each other’s style and keep making films together they can be proud of, otherwise they would have stopped at their second, third or fourth collaboration. The upcoming Alice in Wonderland remake will be the pair’s seventh film together. It screams Burton/Depp classic; its wacky, trippy, fable-type story is exactly the kind of thing audiences have come to expect from the duo who have created a distinctive film genre with flicks like Edward Scissorhands and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Burton often enlists the help of Helena Bonham Carter, his longtime girlfriend, as well. They have collaborated on six films, including Big Fish and Sweeney Todd.
Mutually beneficial relationships between directors and actors can be career-making as well as career-marking. Judd Apatow has not directed a film that did not star Seth Rogen. Apatow may have found his lucky charm for his crude-comedy-with-heart genre in Rogen, but their collaboration suggests that directors are more dependent on actors than the other way around. Rogen exploded after starring in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and has worked on films in which Apatow had no involvement. DiCaprio starred in Blood Diamond between Scorsese films. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination. Depp starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, a project Burton was not involved with, to outstanding box office numbers and an Oscar nomination for his first turn as Jack Sparrow. Except for documentaries, Scorsese has not directed a film in the last 10 years without DiCaprio. Since 1999, Burton has only made two films that did not star Depp.
Many actresses have also formed powerful actor-director bonds. Dianne Weist’s work in five Woody Allen films established her as a film actress and earned her two Academy Awards. Directors and actors who collaborate often know what to expect from one another. The familiarity with each other’s work ethic translates into an easier relationship and brings out the best from both parties. For audiences, that familiarity is what will draw them to the theatres. For the people behind and in front of the camera, their uninhibited performances in familiar company lead to box office and career gold.
There are times when repeat director-actor collaborations do not work. While Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson’s Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona were critical darlings, the pair’s Scoop was not. All three films failed to resonate with audiences and did not break the $25 million mark at the box office. Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks have worked together on three films, starting with 1994’s Forrest Gump, which was their most successful at the box office. With each collaboration afterwards, their movies (Cast Away and The Polar Express) fared worse than the previous one in both awards garnering and box office gross. The two do not need to keep collaborating with each other, as they have had continued success in their other projects, Zemeckis with Beowulf and Hanks with almost anything he takes part in.
The key for Hollywood execs to come close to 2009’s record-breaking box office haul is for powerful actor-director combos to collaborate on projects audiences will want to see in theatres.