'Transformers' vs. 'Larry Crowne': Machines trump movie stars at the metroplex

Blockbuster CGI movie 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' has already taken in more money than new romantic comedy 'Larry Crowne' is likely to, as they battle for Fourth of July weekend moviegoers.

Dave Allocca / AP
In this photo provided by StarPix, Shia LaBeouf poses at the premiere of 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' on Tuesday, June 28, in New York's Times Square. The third installment in the 'Transformers' series opens against the Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks romantic comedy, 'Larry Crowne.'

It’s holiday weekend smackdown time at the multiplex. With “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” in one corner and “Larry Crowne” in the other, it’s officially machines versus movie stars. And from budgets to audience buzz, things are looking bleak for the flesh-and-blood icons.

It’s all part of a longer-term waning of the movie star era, says Hollywood.com box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

“Movie stars are not driving films so much anymore,” he says. “It’s the concept, the special effects, and – more and more – the marketing departments of the film studio calling the shots.”

The event has begun to replace the story or the star, says Dustin Morrow, an independent filmmaker and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “More money is spent on marketing than making films now, so the focus is the campaign rather than the film,” he says.

Robots vs. romance: How do the movies stack up?

The third installment of the Michael Bay robot extravaganza, budgeted at roughly $200 million, towers over the $15 million, Tom Hanks-loves-Julia Roberts romantic comedy.

The robots have already pulled in some $64 million in US theaters alone, just from the blockbuster’s mid-week opening. According to Mr. Dergarabedian, the romantic comedy “may” pull in what it cost to make, over the four-day weekend.

Reviews aren’t helping much. Both films are mired in the mid-30s on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The Los Angeles Times critic, Kenneth Turan, dubbed Crowne “hollow and shockingly unconvincing.”

The bad press will hurt the love story more than the action movie, Dergarabedian says, because blockbuster films like the Transformers franchise are relatively critic-proof. “These mid-range romantic comedies that target older audiences take a hit from bad reviews because older people tend to read and care more about reviews,” he says.

While pairing a romantic comedy against a big popcorn flick is standard counter-programming, even the smaller films with big names in them are approached as the latest installment in a popular genre.

Professor Morrow points to last week’s Cameron Diaz film, “Bad Teacher,” and the upcoming “Horrible Bosses,” featuring Jennifer Aniston – both big Hollywood names. “The movies are being marketed as the ‘next’ in the raunchy adult category that Judd Apatow has made such a hit,” he notes. “The movies are not being marketed as star vehicles, because that isn’t working anymore.”

The evolving role of the movie star

While high-concept films that lack a big name may be better for studio pocketbooks, stars have their place, says Morrow. “They certainly help drive all the ancillary movie industry, from magazines to audience engagement,” he says.

Star power has also helped unlikely projects see the light of day. Without Kevin Costner behind it, he points out, “Dances with Wolves” would never have been made. Of course, he adds with a laugh, that also opened the way for such debacles as “Waterworld” and “The Postman.”

“As movies based on toys and comic books have grown more popular, the ‘star system’ has begun to slip further and further away,” says Gwendolyn Foster, film professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The star system has been eroding for years, she notes, adding that the drop-off in mainstream films made for adults is pushing the trend along.

“This is too bad, in some ways,” she notes, adding that great actors bring a spark and depth to a film that cannot be replaced by a machine. However, the professor adds, her students have adapted to what she calls a glut of bad movies aimed at people missing half a brain.

“My students seem to expect the movies to be bad,” says Professor Foster. “They go to them to see how bad they are – and then gather online to excoriate them in a sort of communal sharing.”

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