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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Are Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio not big enough to open "Body of Lies"?

October 8, 2008 |  1:46 pm

My colleague John Horn is finishing a story for our Thursday paper that makes a bold prediction — it's possible that "Body of Lies" may lose the opening weekend box-office race to a week-old movie about a talking dog. Yikes! When it comes to star power, it's hard to imagine a movie having more fuel injection than "Body of Lies," which has two of Hollywood's top A-listers, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, along with top director Ridley Scott. So why is the heavily promoted Warners political thriller tracking so poorly?

Lies2_2 Horn talked to two rival distributors who contend that Warners has an uphill battle. He writes: "For all the advertising Warner Bros. has bought in support of 'Body of Lies' — remember the incessant spots for the film during the Summer Olympics? — the film's awareness is unexpectedly low so close to its release. Audience interest, they further say, is concentrated among older males, who generally don't rush to the multiplex on a film's first weekend." Horn says the film's early reviews have been good, but not glowing, adding that "even though 'Body of Lies' is not explicitly about the war in Iraq, recent movies with even a vague Middle Eastern story have labored to sell tickets."

After talking to a few film analysts myself, I think "Body of Lies" has even bigger problems. It is coming out at a time when there is horrible market-place fatigue — a nice way of saying that people are either too burned out or distracted to want to see many movies right now. There certainly are plenty of distractions, with the country embroiled in a hard-fought presidential election and suffering from a gigantic economic collapse. Hollywood is supposed to be recession proof, but is it depression proof too?

Moviegoers were assaulted last weekend with six wide-release new films. This weekend is nearly as crowded, with Screen Gems releasing the low-budget thriller "Quarantine," Universal opening the football drama "The Express" and 20th Century Fox bring out "City of Ember," along with a host of holdovers from last week. It's simply another example of Hollywood being unable to exercise any self-discipline. Always under pressure from their corporate bosses to boost profits, studios simply make too many movies, leaving it to their increasingly frazzled marketing departments to figure out a way to open them all. According to a Michael Fleming story in today's Variety, the production floodgates are about to burst open again, with as many as 40 new studio films slated to be in production by next summer, a situation guaranteed to create another disastrous box-office logjam in 2010 and 2011.

If "Body of Lies" doesn't open, it will be easy to say that even a film with lots of action scenes and great characters still couldn't persuade moviegoers to see a story that might possibly involve politics or the Middle East. But the real blame will fall on DiCaprio and Crowe. They are mega movie stars, and mega movie stars are supposed to open pictures. That's why they get paid the big bucks. If the movie ends up being a disappointment, it could be another nail in the coffin of the old-fashioned star system, which has been shown to be increasingly unreliable in terms of delivering large numbers of moviegoers.

Outside of 2007's "American Gangster" and 2006's "The Departed," which both had two mega stars and an A-list director at the helm, it's hard to think of many recent films that justified the cost of all that high-priced talent. Those two films worked because they were set in a commercial genre — gangland thriller. "Body of Lies" doesn't have that going for it. Most of today's studios prefer to team one top star with a character actor or lesser-known sidekick, whether it's Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "MI3," Matt Damon and Julia Stiles in "Bourne Ultimatum" or Will Smith and his dog Samantha in "I Am Legend."

Dogs have a great life. They don't get a piece of the gross, but no one expects them to open a movie either. Movie stars are burdened with higher expectations. And if "Body of Lies" doesn't cut the mustard this weekend, you can bet that a lot of movie star fees will start going down almost as fast as the stock market.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

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