Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Ryan Reynolds Effect

Sometimes the potential of a product, strategy or market will become an idée fixe in a company or even an entire industry. In the case of movies and television, this often shows up as the conviction that a certain actor is going to be big, despite an apparent lack of interest from the audience. This is related to but not quite the same as the previously mentioned Paula Marshall effect where producers continue to cast actors who perfectly match a type even though casting against type may offer greater returns (that falls closer to the safe failures Pauline Kael described here).

This idée fixe is more of a collective belief that's resistant to evidence, specifically the belief that a given performer can convince people to watch or listen to something which they would otherwise ignore, a quality known as being bankable.

Though bankability can be difficult to measure, the belief in it can be evidence-based. I've heard that it was Sweet Home Alabama that made Hollywood take Reese Witherspoon seriously as a star. She had already been critically acclaimed for Election and had starred in the hit Legally Blonde, but the general feeling was that the success of Sweet Home ($180 million off of a $38 million budget) was almost entirely due to Witherspoon, theat she "carried" the movie. With all due caveats about counterfactuals, that was, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably reasonable conclusion.

You can make similar arguments for the bankabililty of any number of actors from Chaplin and Pickford to John Wayne to Adam Sandler. This isn't a comment on quality -- the only Sandler scene I really enjoyed was the one where Bob Barker beats him senseless -- but I think there's a very little question that he does bring people into see a certain kind of movie. As Burt Reynolds once said it takes a particular kind of talent to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

It's one thing to say that certain stars are bankable;  it's quite another to say that this quality can be spotted in advance. Nonetheless, Hollywood often manages to convince itself that it has spotted the next big thing.

This phenomenon is easy to spot. it invariably involves a young actor, usually blandly attractive, sometimes at the center of some kind of buzz (buzz-generated next-big-things are often attractive, but non-attractive next-big-things are almost always buzz generated --see Jack Black) getting an inexplicable string of choice roles.  The 90's actor Farrah Forke is an excellent example. For a few years Forke was all over network television. She was a regular on Wings. She have a recurring role on Lois and Clark. and she starred in two short lived sitcoms in  rapid succession, all despite no apparent interest from the viewers. After this flurry of activity, her career dropped off sharply and she left acting all together.

That's a fairly standard career path for a next big thing. There are exceptions. I seem to recall reading that the executives at NBC insisted on Jane Leeves being cast in Frasier because they had high expectations for her so you might argue that she was a next big thing who panned out, but other than a very obscure syndicated sitcom, Frasier was Jane Leeves first real exposure and she was a hit from the very start.

You can also fine cases of stars who required many roles before they found one that clicked. George Clooney comes to mind. but Clooney was less next big thing and more lost cause,  toiling away in obscure roles until finally getting a hit with ER (believe it or not the second show by that name he has appeared in).

The classic next big thing career arc, where the actor is given better and better rolls despite a lack off audience response,  almost never ends well which brings us to Ryan Reynolds.
The early returns are in, and it looks like a weekend to forget for Ryan Reynolds.
The actor’s two new films -- the animated “Turbo” and the sci-fi comedy “R.I.P.D.” -- are off to dreadful starts at the box office, according to rough estimates based on Friday matinee figures.
The $130-million “R.I.P.D.” may struggle just to gross $10 million in its first three days of release, the estimates show. And the even more expensive "Turbo" could gross barely double that.
“Red 2” should also surpass the $135-million “Turbo,” from DreamWorks Animation and distributor 20th Century Fox, which looks to gross $20 million or less in its first three days in theaters (the film opened Wednesday). “Turbo’s” desultory launch will probably be below the third weekend's returns for “Despicable Me 2.
(And in case you're wondering $135 million is on the high end for a non-Pixar computer animated film. Despicable Me 2 had a budget of $76 million.)

We probably shouldn't put too much blame on Ryan Reynolds shoulders for the failure of Turbo. One of the lessons of Pixar is that animated films are not particularly star driven. It is reasonable to assume that the success of the Incredibles and Finding Nemo cannot be credited to the box office clout of Craig T Nelson and Albert Brooks. Still, it is also reasonable to assume that having Ryan Reynolds as the lead of the picture did not do a lot to drive ticket sales.

By the same token but to a lesser degree, there's a limit to Reynolds' role in the failure of RIPD. This was a badly reviewed, badly marketed movie that obviously had studio executives nervous well before its release. Part of that nervousness was due to the lack of interest Reynolds was inspiring, but it's not clear that a different actor could have made this a break-even project.

What we can conclude, again with the usual counterfactual caveats, is that there is no evidence that Reynolds can pull people into the theater. That is not to say he chases people out -- Safe House and Wolverine did good business while the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy The Proposal broke an astounding $300 million worldwide -- but when it comes to what we might call Reynolds' "Sweet Home" moments, films such as the Change-up that largely depend on the star's pull, he has consistently underperformed.

The point here is not that Reynold's career is hopeless partially because many would-be next-big-thing leading men (Robert Preston, Leslie Nielsen) have reinvented themselves after faltering careers but mainly because there's a bigger issue here. Despite their reputation for rationality, corporations and even entire industries are as vulnerable to extraordinary popular delusions as the rest of us are. These beliefs are usually fundamentally optimistic, revolving around the some promising development. It can be faith in the potential star power of an actor despite major box office disappointments or the conviction that a new business model can save an industry despite the fact that no one can explain how it can make any money.

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