Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Actors Don’t Matter… Directors Do

So much of marketing in Hollywood has come to revolve around the actors. After all, they are the faces we see on every poster, commercial, and trailer and throughout the two-hour running time. When we like the film, we quote their lines and mimic their moves. Interestingly, however, actors aren’t the best indicator of a film’s quality. They are more like the pretty packaging that years of writing, craftsmanship, and fine-tuning are stuffed into when it’s time to sell. No, my friends, directors, the men and women you rarely see or hear, are the best indicators of a film’s quality.

Why Actors Don’t Matter

The Hollywood marketing machine is a formidable juggernaut. If it tells us to love Lindsey Lohan, we will. If it brands a brooding, deathly pale anorexic as a teen heartthrob, women young and old buy it hook, line, and sinker and line up to adore him by the millions. If the Machine decides it hates an actor, they can call down lightning from the heavens to strike that individual until they have been shunned by every human being in the Northern Hemisphere and are working at McDonalds for seven bucks an hour. This marketing machine is at the heart of our collective misconception about actors and the quality of our movies.

Let me explain. Hollywood marketing cares little for what’s inside a movie. It does not believe that the moviegoing public is smart enough to look inside before purchasing a ticket. It believes that moviegoers are sold mostly on what’s on the outside (posters, trailers, commercials, cereal boxes, etc.)- and maybe they have the sales data to support this idea.

Who can they put on the packaging? Not the flawed, ordinary guy who made the movie. No one would know him from Adam. So they put actors out there because people know them. In this regard, actors carry the marketing bulk of most films. They are a product endorsement  and therefore no solid indicator of a film’s quality.

Observe Will Smith. There is no doubt the man makes money for movies. He is one heckuva product endorsement. Check out his box office revenues:
Keep in mind, this is the money he brought in (and he is supremely gifted at drawing in audiences on just his appearance alone), not an indicator of the quality of his movies. To determine that, we turn to the critics. Now, it is not uncommon for a few Eberts to go rogue and hate what people really like and vice versa. But when the Tomatometer gives you a score below 50% that means more than a few critics hated the movie. With this in mind, here are Will Smith's Tomatometer scores:
Will Smith uniformly performs well at the box office, which is exactly what Marketing was banking on, but his quality record is just plain spotty, swinging from 69 percent (just okay) to 27 percent (ouch). These disparities are even worse for actress Angelina Jolie and other A-listers.

When it comes to the actual filmmaking, to the construction of these complex displays of light and sound, actors usually have little to do with it. True, some actors will insist on having a say in the script. Or they won’t choose a movie unless they personally approve the script and the final cut. Or, like Edward Norton in American History X, they may end up usurping the director’s chair altogether.

These are exceptions to the rule. Most actors come on board a film long after the script has been written, the storyboards drafted, and the sets built. They did not come up with the story or the lines that come from their mouths. They had little to do with the special effects that made those aliens/zombies/dinosaurs look so real.
But I’ll tell you who did. You guessed it… DIRECTORS.

Why Directors Do Matter

No one is more involved in the filmmaking process than the director. In fact, they are usually involved in every step of the film's creation, from sketches on a napkin to the final minutes in the editing suite. A director has final say on every creative decision (Uma Thurman's great yellow jumpsuit, keep that line, hate that line, hate that actor, that robot looks better in lime green, etc.). So when you are seeing a movie, you are seeing the sum of a director's creative decisions, whether by commission or omission. Actors flit very briefly through this process. If directors are like the mothers that carry their films to full-term (and they are), actors are like the sort-of friend who stops by every couple weeks for tea.

Observe the Tomatometer. Let's take one of the most iconic directors of our time, Steven Spielberg:

Like his movies or not, Spielberg does consistently quality movies. He never dips below a 50 percent (which is bad for any Rotten Tomatoes newbies out there). He is as regular a guy as you will find in the movie business. Luckily, his high quality movies also make gobs of cash. That is why he rose to the top and why he continues to sit there today.

Of course, not every director that does a great movie is a Spielberg. Some are wildly inconsistent, soaring from a 90 percent on one film to a 20 percent their next one. Take Gladiator director Ridley Scott:

Scott's career is a case study in how certain directors can be so inconsistent. Of course, this means that when you go into a Ridley Scott film, you never know what you're going to get. But at least the man is consistently inconsistent. You understand that you are taking a risk when you walk into Robin Hood.

The last group of directors is consistently bad. They're so bad, in fact, that I won't bother creating a bar graph for them. For example, check out much maligned director Uwe Boll. Here is his recent filmography:

  • In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale - 5%
  • Postal - 8%
  • Bloodrayne - 4%
  • Alone in the Dark - 1%
  • House of the Dead - 4%
  • Blackwoods - 11%

Without a doubt, Uwe Boll's movies are crap, all of them. No inconsistency here. So even if Uwe Boll makes a movie with freaking Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins, you know it's going to be crap.

Trust not in actors to bring you good movies. They have nothing to do with the quality of a movie. Cover the pretty faces and names you see on movie poster and let your eyes go directly (no pun intended) to the bottom of the credits, to the name next to 'directed by'.

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