Logic and the “Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Spock One of the biggest misfortunes of my life was being taught logic in high school. It provided an impractical and counter-productive foundation for the illogical world I’ve lived in ever since.

In logic class, I and my fellow ill-fated classmates were taught a series of formulas called “tautologies,” which are always true. There is no possibility of negating them. Ever. One is called Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. This means that it is always a fallacy to assume that because one thing happened, followed by another thing, then the first thing caused the next. In other words: if I clap my hands just before dawn, that’s not why the sun came up.

I will quickly apply Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc to the current controversy surrounding the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and then, as this is a movie blog, get onto my primary topic, “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”

As to the former, I believe a lot of people of various political persuasions are coming around to the idea that there’s no evidence that Jared Lee Loughlin was motivated by politics and uncivil dialogue. But the logic of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc takes us a step further than that and says that even if he regularly watched Limbaugh fan and watched FOX News, that alone is not enough to make the assumption that that was responsible for making him do what he did.

One of the things I usually like about Bill Maher is that he calls out the absurdity of people who don’t believe in evolution, global warming, or having a President who was born in the U.S. But in this case, like many politicians and commentators, he followed his preconceptions rather than logic, and blamed the right wing. In this he mirrors the illogic of conservatives who proclaim that President Bush kept the country safe. These things fly in the face of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, as do thousands of other suppositions that are the bedrock of conventional thought.

Okay, now I will proceed, with grandiose rhetorical overstatement, to “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”

A Ticket-Selling movie star is thought by many to possess a persona that is so appealing that people will go see a movie just because they are in it. If the actor doesn’t play the persona, then it often doesn’t work. Angelina Jolie’s star persona is said to be in action roles, and the evidence supports this: “A Mighty Heart” (9 M), “Changeling,” ($36M), versus “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” ($186M), “The Good Shepherd” ($60M), “Wanted” ($134M), “Salt,” ($118M), and “The Tourist” ($62M). Likewise, nobody is surprised when “Greenberg” fails to become a hit simply because Ben Stiller is in it. While the correlations of genuine movie star persona to grosses doesn’t always work, but it certainly happens enough so that most people make the reasonable judgment that one caused the other.

Reasonable, yes, and very possible true. But not logical.

But what other explanation or explanations could there possibly be? In fact it is possible to look at the information in the previous paragraph and draw a slightly different conclusion.

Perhaps we have it backwards. Perhaps it is the movies that draw the audiences and the movie stars are people who have successfully managed to star in those movies.

No matter funny Ben Stiller is, no matter how much people love his humor, if all he did in his career was “Greenberg”-type movies, he would never be called someone whose name could fill theatre. Likewise, “A Mighty Heart” and “Changeling” were not conceived as blockbusters, and if Angelina Jolie had solely followed that path, then she would also not be seen as a ticket-selling movie star.

Let’s say you are one of those two people, and have gotten to the point where you get sent scripts, walk into offices, and have lunches. If you choose project A, followed by B, C, D—you’re a star who puts butts in seats. You choose project E, followed by F, G, H—you’re not a ticket-selling star, and that’s that. For years, Robert De Niro chose the kind of artistic projects that weren’t likely to make huge profits, until one day, he decided to make different choices and now his films make a fockin’ lot of money.

John Travolta certainly found his winning persona with “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” He had it all, but he did not choose wisely after that. There are also many people who had a flash point of success of opportunity, or many years of being considered capable of putting butts in seats, but then dropped off the list, either because of emotional issues, or because they simply had no wish to be stars, and deliberately avoided those kinds of roles.

The commonly-believed perception that you sell tickets means you get offered projects of all kinds, including exploitatively commercial ones, as well as prestige films with great scripts, directors, and co-stars. Once you are in that position, what do you do? Are your instincts sound? Or do you listen to seasoned advisors who presumably give you sound advice? There are actors known for turning down a list of the some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, and there are also actors that are known for tying up scripts for years while they contemplate if they are “right.”This doesn’t mean that ticket-selling stars pick good movies, just commercial ones, as Nicholas Cage’s career demonstrates well.

I saw terror in the trailers of more than one of these presumed ticket-sellers. Some actors are not the most emotionally stable or confident people and it is often a very frightening thing for them to go to the set. While others see these people as money in the bank, for them stardom is like hurtling out-of-control down a highway, where one slip-up might take them over a cliff. They do not want to lose what they have. And of course, eventually most of them do.

If the notion of ticket-selling movie stars is in fact a puffed up illusion similar to the funhouse games of Wall Street—and I’m not saying it is—the hyper-inflation of actor’s salaries is lucrative for the people who live off of percentages. Larger actor salaries means larger budgets overall which increase studio overhead fees, also calculated by percentages. Many of the most powerful agents become studio heads, and the money is passed back and forth between members of the club.

The mammoth salaries are obviously very nutritious for the actors, and they also can be useful for producers, as they can often get the green light for movies simply by having a single person agree to play the lead role.

I could go on and on with the advantages for many people of this idea of the ticket-selling star, but ultimately, whether that idea is true or not is irrelevant to the subject of this blog, which is logical thinking, or more precisely, the lack of it. I believe I have offered a plausible secondary explanation for why certain actors always seem to be in high-grossing movies. My actual opinion is the real story is a combination of the two, and probably some other factors.

The Author with Will Smith I believe—but logically do not know for sure—that Will Smith’s presence in a film will sell tickets. Still there’s no doubt that he also has impressive commercial instincts. It’s fair to say that he had something to do with selecting and developing “The Karate Kid” (worldwide gross $359M) for his son Jaden, and as a music industry pro, overseeing his daughter Willow’s chart-topping record, “Whip My Hair.” The kids are talented, but they are too young to make these kinds of judgments all by themselves. Will Smith has a magic touch, whether he’s in a movie or not. Since I worked with him on “Six Degrees of Separation,” I’ve thought that Will Smith was as likable and charming a person you could ever meet, but honestly I never dreamed he would have achieved the level of success he has. If people go to movies because he is in them, it’s because of all the hard work he’s put in to get to where he is.