Yesterday, Kottke posted a story from the New York Times called, "A Big Star May Not a Profitable Movie Make". While there is no definitive answer, it seems that there are only a handful of superstars that can create significant financial success for a film; the rest don't make much of a difference.
In one study, Mr. De Vany and W. David Walls, an economist at the University of Calgary, took those factors into account. Looking across a sample of more than 2,000 movies exhibited between 1985 and 1996, they found that only seven actors and actresses â€” Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jodie Foster, Jim Carrey, Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams â€” had a positive impact on the box office, mostly in the first few weeks of a film's release.
In the same study, two directors, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone also pushed up a movie's revenue. But Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone and Val Kilmer were associated with a smaller box-office revenue. No other star had any statistically significant impact at all. So what are stars for? By helping a movie open â€” attracting lots of people in to see a movie in the first few days before the buzz about whether it's good or bad is widely known â€” stars can set a floor for revenues, said Mr. De Vany.
That sounds about right to me. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the the Long Tail. There are a few really big stars that drive a ton of money to the box office, which may account for 70% of the star power out there (let's say). Then there's a group of maybe 100 actors who account for the next 10% and the tens of thousands of other actors out there account for the final 20%. Below is my incredibly crappy attempt at a Long Tail graph (the first two sections should both be much smaller).
Each of the three groups are interchangeable within their groups assuming they fit the needs of the film. Fitting the film is key as a crappy film will do bad no matter what and putting Julia Roberts in the starring role of How High 2 just won't break the box office bank (even if the Snakes on a Plane set would love it). Another of the economists agrees with me.
Moreover, even if a star-studded movie does well, it does not necessarily mean that the stars are causing higher ticket sales. In fact, it seems to move the other way around: stars select what they believe are promising projects. And studios prefer to put stars in movies that they expect to be a success.
What's the answer? Make an entertaining movie and you'll make money. While a star can add entertainment, there are only a handful that have an impact on an otherwise crappy movie.
Since my knowledge and research skills are lacking, if you know any films that failed/succeeded because of/in spite of an actor, please post it in the comments.