With production costs topping $125 million, it’s hard to see that tally as anything but tepid. Just compare that to say, the Wednesday opening numbers for other popcorn powerhouses such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” – 62 million, or “Spider-Man 2,” which took in $40.4 million on its Wednesday opening. Even Mr. Cruise’s own “War of the Worlds” made $21.3 million, while “Mission Impossible 2” pulled in $12.5 million, both on mid-week debuts.
While Hollywood.com box office president Paul Dergarabedian politely dubs the film’s performance “acceptable,” he notes that the few box office bright spots so far this summer are anything but star-driven: “Karate Kid” made nearly $56 million its first weekend and features the unknown Jaden Smith, while the Pixar family film “Toy Story 3” stars animated kid’s playthings.
The trend away from big, star-driven vehicles wowing audiences every weekend has been brewing for some time, he points out, but this summer it may reach a new threshold he says, with little buzz building for such star vehicles as Angelina Jolie’s bid to be a female James Bond in “Salt,” and Adam Sandler’s “Grownups.”
“Moviegoers are less and less looking for that big name,” Mr. Dergarabedian says, adding that these days they are more attracted to a good concept or an interesting plot.
Movie stars are far from extinct, says Dan Hudak, multimedia film critic and creator of hudakonhollywood.com, but they are competing with too many other forms of entertainment to hold consumers' attention the way they used to. Beyond that, he points out, today’s actors want to stretch and try new genres but they do so at risk to their public persona. “Back in the old days if a tried and true star like John Wayne wanted to try something new,” he says, the performer would be careful to extend into a role or genre that capitalized on the characteristics that made him famous.
“So, for instance, Wayne would do a different kind of hero than a cowboy, but he would never stray from the things that drew people to him in the first place,” he adds. These days, if a star such as Ms. Jolie dips into serious drama as she did with “The Changeling” or “A Mighty Heart,” both of which underperformed at the box office, it will be hard to come back to the action roles that earned her so many fans and turned her into a box office draw.
“A lot of time has passed since her last action outing,” he adds. “Fans have moved on.”
The empty ticket lobby Wednesday night at the Pacific ArcLight Cinemas complex in Sherman Oaks – with two more “Knight and Day” showings to go – tells the same story. Catching up with patrons as they straggled in from the parking garage suggests that everything but star power is at work in this summer’s moviegoing.
“Watching the same faces in movie after movie is just boring,” says thirty-something Eldad Sahar, who came to see “Get Him to the Greek.” He adds that he liked the film because it doesn’t have any big names but “it’s about something – it’s about someone who is lonely and only has his art.”
Nearby, 17 year-old Bella Israel, who is on her way to see “Toy Story 3,” has little awareness of movie stars. “I don’t care about Tom Cruise,” she says, but adds about "Knight and Day," “the movie does look kind of interesting. I might go and see it later.”
Movie-star power may not be as potent as it once was, but film economics researcher Julianne Treme from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, suggests that what matters more today is a sense of connection.
“If fans feel they can relate to a celebrity,” she says, over a sustained period of time, through everything from traditional print media to the most contemporary social media, including twitter, as long as it feels “real,” then they may be more likely to simply go to a movie because that star is in it. What does not help sustain star appeal, she adds, “are those quickie, manufactured appearances right before a movie comes out. “They feel false and they do very little to help build star appeal.”