This past weekend saw two would-be blockbusters bursting at the seams with stars crash and burn at the box office. In the left corner was The Giver, a decidedly more YA take on Lois Lowry’s celebrated dystopian novel featuring Meryl Streep, and in the right The Expendables 3, ringleader Sylvester Stallone’s testosterone-heavy shoot ’em up crammed with virtually every ’80s and ’90s action star imaginable, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Wesley Snipes. And both movies seemed, well, off. Yes, part of the blame should fall on the lackluster scripts and uninspired direction, but both films also boast mailed-in performances by their big-name stars, and a troubling Hollywood trend that industry folks refer to as “boarding” is the culprit.
In Tinseltown parlance, “boarding” involves an A-list star being inserted into a big-budget picture, having their individual scenes blocked out so they can shoot them in a matter of days or weeks, and then hitting the road. The practice is highly beneficial to both parties. Films get to score a big star in their movie at a discounted rate, paying them a fraction of their standard quote, while the star gets to keep their full quote stable—since their fee is prorated—and is able to have their name attached to a flashy flick, thereby increasing their individual box office clout. It’s the audiences consuming these patchwork products that suffer.
“Boarding is basically a way of, for lack of a better word, mailing it in,” an agent told The Hollywood Reporter.
For The Giver, The Weinstein Company thought they had a potential futuristic YA franchise on their hands in the vein of The Hunger Games or Divergent, but was in dire need of a big, splashy name to lend the project star power, since young leads Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush were unknown commodities. And, while A-list actors’ respective stars are shining less brighter these days, the cachet they lend to a project still matters a great deal when it comes to a movie’s international box office—which matters way more than its domestic take, accounting for $25 billion in grosses compared to $10.9 billion in 2013, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
So, the inimitable Harvey Weinstein worked his magic, calling on his pal Meryl Streep—who famously referred to him as “God” after winning her Best Actress Oscar for the Weinstein-distributed Iron Lady—to return the favor, don a gray wig, and play the villainous Chief Elder in the Lowry adaptation.
To say that Streep’s performance is disjointed is an understatement. She pops into the film at random intervals—in both human and holographic form—and delivers her ominous lines with a decided lack of conviction. It’s not all that surprising, considering the circumstances: the 18-time Oscar nominee spent a total of 10 days on the South African set boarding her scenes. Nonetheless, Streep appears prominently on the film’s poster and promotional materials, made the talk show rounds prior to its release, and her involvement convinced other stars like Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes to sign up in order to work with the living legend.
“We were able to drop Meryl in for 10 days, which was a win-win because we get Meryl to promote the movie, but no one gets paid a big salary,” TWC COO David Glasser told THR.
Which brings us to The Expendables 3—the big kahuna of boarding. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were boarded in for a week on The Expendables 2 as a favor to their former Planet Hollywood co-investor Sly Stallone, but when the time came for The Expendables 3, Willis—who was also boarded into G.I. Joe: Retaliation—reportedly balked at a $3 million payday for four days of work, and was subsequently replaced by Harrison Ford because, according to THR, Willis’ boarding rate comes in at $1 million a day.
And yes, The Expendables 3 came armed with a nonexistent script, little in the way of direction, and a piracy problem, but boarding is also to blame for the movie’s ridiculously cramped cast of A-listers, with it featuring the Terminator, Han Solo, Rambo, Mad Max, Blade, and Zorro, to name a few, all of which are inserted into the film in a bizarre, cut-away fashion (like a shot of X movie star firing a ridiculously large weapon, followed by a lame one-liner). They could barely fit all of the actors on the friggin’ poster.
The examples, it seems, are endless. Kate Winslet was boarded into Divergent so she could shoot around her pregnancy, while Johnny Depp was reportedly paid $1 million for a week of work on the upcoming holiday blockbuster Into the Woods as a favor to his Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall. Nonetheless, both Winslet and Depp featured very prominently in the films’ marketing campaigns.
By dropping a star in on the project for a brief period to up its box office potential, producers are causing inestimable damage to the final product. Table reads? Rehearsals? Developing a solid rapport with your fellow cast members to allow for some magical improv when the cameras start rolling? You can throw all that out the window. The process transforms movie stars into mercenaries-for-hire, duping cinemagoers into the mindset of, “Oh, I’ll go see this movie because Johnny Depp is in it,” when in reality, he was air-dropped onto the set for a week.
One of the most notorious examples of boarding comes courtesy of Julia Roberts, who was reportedly paid $3 million upfront against 3 percent of the gross for her six minutes of screen time in the crowded calamity that was Valentine’s Day, presumably as a favor to her Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall. The kind folks at Vulture broke it down: Roberts was paid $8,333 per second of screen time, or $500,000 per minute, or better yet, $11,952 per word of dialogue.
Imagine, if you will, a cinematic dystopia of films like The Expendables and Valentine’s Day—pure marketing products devoid of chemistry and crammed with recognizable faces, all of whom are boarded in to shoot their scenes. Or worse yet, picture a future in which stars film their scenes individually acting against the camera, and their co-stars are inserted in post-production via green screen. It’s already happening on television.