It shouldn’t come as a surprise to filmgoers after years of After Earths and John Carters to hear that Hollywood studios are struggling to sell original content. Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland—this year’s biggest original blockbusters—both flopped, and last year was hardly better as even universally praised films like Doug Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow struggled to make an impact on the marketplace. As a result, studios are leaning increasingly on established properties like franchises, reboots, and adaptations to maintain profits—which makes news of Sony Pictures’ investment in the upcoming original feature Passengers all the more surprising.
Recently, it was announced that Passengers, a big budget (think $100 million+) sci-fi romance, will be moving forward at Sony after a period of fierce negotiations with filmmakers, including director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The Hollywood Reporter broke the news, dropping with it insinuations that new Sony CEO Tom Rothman openly questioned Pratt and Lawrence’s ability to open a film, and is seeking ways to protect the studio from the potential fallout of another original film failure.
Studios are struggling to sell original content, but the problem isn’t movie stars, Mr. Rothman, it’s the marketing. The problem that franchise films like The Avengers and Jurassic World present in advertising is fundamentally different from the problems that original content presents. The goal in advertising a franchise film is to differentiate your product from what has come before. Audiences have already been sold on the concept, what they need to be sold on is this film’s specific presentation of the concept. Enlisting stars is one of the ways that these films can differentiate themselves—a Michael Fassbender X-Men, a Christian Bale Batman. The sequels and the reboots that have struggled are the ones that fail to distinguish themselves as a unique endeavor. Nerdy Andrew Garfield is not sufficiently different from nerdy Tobey Maguire to give people a reason to go see another Spider-Man, and as such, the films burned out quickly.
In other words, when your product is an empty constant—a fill-the-blank origin story, perhaps—stars become the variables.
Maybe studios have just gotten so comfortable with superheroes that they’ve forgotten how things worked before, but in the age before sequels, it was movie stars that were the known commodity providing audiences with a safety net. We already know we like Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. What studios have to worry about is selling us on the film itself. Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland didn’t fail because their stars have run out of juice—they failed because audiences couldn’t tell what the hell they were about.
One of the most successful original films of the last decade was Christopher Nolan’s 2010 smash Inception, and its advertising strategy can be seen as instructive for how to market an original film. Though Inception featured a fleet of stars just as impressive as the crew for The Avengers, its marketing campaign focused not on the familiar face of Leonardo DiCaprio, but on the concept of the film itself. The poster placed DiCaprio’s name above the title, but his face is nowhere to be found. Instead, the image on the poster is one from the film—the memorable image of Paris streets folding over on themselves. Trailers followed a similar strategy—though every member of the film’s ensemble cast has a moment of face time in the trailers, DiCaprio’s voiceover points to the film’s plot and themes. It’s the film, not the stars, that audiences are being encouraged to think about. It’s also worth noting that these glimpses of the film came out long before its creative team began doing press, making their appearances the last in a long chain of attractions.
Tom Rothman isn’t necessarily wrong to question the security of his investment; he’s just assigning risk to the wrong element. Of course Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt can open a movie. If they can open this movie remains to be seen. Do these parts gel with audience’s perceptions of Lawrence and Pratt? Do Tyldum’s plans for the film include dressing up his attractive stars as freaky space fauns, a la Jupiter Ascending?
Complicating matters is the news that the pay scale of these two megastars is not equal, and that for once, it will be the female star far outearning her male counterpart.
After it was revealed in the Sony hack by The Daily Beast that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male counterparts in the ensemble film American Hustle, earning 7 points on the back-end compared to 9 for director David O’Russell and stars Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale, it appears that her team has been aggressive in pursuing compensation that accurately reflects the size of Lawrence’s fan base. While Pratt will clean up on Passengers with a $12 million dollar paycheck, Lawrence’s deal on Passengers is monumental, $20 million upfront or 30 percent of the film’s profits if it breaks even, recalling the massive paydays stars of decades past used to demand when original properties were the norm and not the exception.
Lawrence’s deal resembles Sandra Bullock’s contract for Gravity, a similar space-themed and star-heavy original project, and one that was a massive international success. But where Bullock had over a decade’s proof of her ability to open original films, Lawrence is a star born of the franchise era. Up until this point, Jennifer Lawrence’s biggest box office hits have been in existing properties like The Hunger Games, and regardless of the opinions of the press and the public, it’s clear based on Lawrence’s compensation that in the eyes of the industry her roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were just part of a larger ensemble.
Both Sony and Lawrence are looking for an opportunity to reassert their public image after high-profile attacks on their privacy in the last year. With advance numbers this big, Passengers starts to look less like an investment and more like a test case for all involved. If the film fails, who will take the blame? With Rothman’s hesitation on the project on record (and let’s not pretend his comments about Pratt and Lawrence were leaked from anyone but his own people), it’s Lawrence who’s left standing over the plate. And based on those salary reports, it seems like she’s taking this chance at bat as an opportunity to swing for the fences.
This paycheck isn’t just compensation—it’s a wager. Here’s to hoping she scores.