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6 A-List Stars With Greenlight Power: Do They Wield It For Good Or Evil?

by The Playlist Staff
June 3, 2013 2:45 PM
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6 Stars With Greenlight Power

The process by which movie A gets made while movies B-Z end up as so much shredded paper and shattered dreams is an arcane and mysterious one. While it seems as though most scripts, if they’re not just ignored, are simply fed into the enormous, clogged-up machine of the Hollywood system to be pawed over, derided or defended by the assistants to various junior executives at endless meetings about meetings, the accepted wisdom still runs that if you can get your script in front of one of maybe twenty or thirty specific pairs of eyes, the odds tip dramatically in your favor. These godlike beings with ”greenlight power,” however, are fewer now than in previous eras, in part because of a shift in the type of movies that make the big moneys these days (it’s not like “The Hangover Part III” or “Fast And Furious 6” were little sure-to-be-overlooked gems in need of a Selznick-type saviour to rescue them from the turnaround pile.) This casts the opening weekend disappointment of “After Earth” in an interesting light in a couple of ways.

Firstly, how will this be interpreted in terms of the Hollywood tentpole club’s already well-documented aversion to “original” ideas? As rote as the premise may have seemed, “After Earth” wasn’t based on a comic or a video game and had no pre-existing fan base, aspects which, when applied to something like “Inception” seem risky and brave, but somehow when applied to the Shyamalan film, seem risky and foolish (yes, the director may be a factor there.) Secondly, what does this do to Will Smith’s previously unassailable standing? When we talk about the pool of individuals with greenlight power getting smaller, that’s especially true of the subset of that number who are actors, if you compare it to even a few years ago, when not every big release had to cost $130 million to make. In “After Earth” we have a clear example of a film that simply wouldn’t exist in any form without its star: it was a “passion project,” conceived of as a big-budget, sci-fi spectacular with monsters! Spaceships! And peril! It was marshalled into being purely by Smith, shot by the director he chose, starring himself and his son, and released in a prime summer weekend slot against what should have been easy competition (the second weekend of a sixquel; an ensemble magician heist movie.)

Had the “After Earth” gamble paid off, it would have looked like a brilliant use of Smith’s greenlight power. However, it now it looks like it won’t, because while Smith’s movies tend to perform well overseas, something remarkable would have to happen for this not to end up a disappointment, and let’s not forget that your power as an actor in Hollywood is largely predicated on how big you can open a film domestically in its first weekend. Add to that the fact that the film really isn’t very good (our review here) and the whole endeavor starts to feel a lot like hubris -- a cynical and rather smug attempt to parlay his own success into a blockbuster career for his son that audiences saw through and were put off by (it's mean, but we love The Onion's take on same.) It got us to thinking about Smith and the few other actors who are in the rare position of being able to greenlight a film -- by which we mean not simply increase its bankability by signing on but actually get it into production from a standing start -- and whether they use their privilege for good or evil ends. Essentially; do they choose projects that have no chance of getting made elsewhere because they are attracted by the story or the director (good) or do they simply leap onto whatever looks most likely to give their profiles, bank balances and egos a boost (evil.) Here are six individuals who currently have that power, and how we think they wield it.

Will smith
Will Smith
If “After Earth,” purely in opening weekend numbers, is Smith’s first stumble in a long period of box-office infallibility, it really throws into high relief just how impressive a job he had done at translating his likable persona and broad-based appeal into the kind of massive stardom that maybe on this list, and in the whole wide world in general, only Tom Cruise could rival. It’s especially remarkable considering how few really great films Smith has been associated with (you can check out our rundown of his 5 best performances here, and take note how we were kind of reaching to get to 5.) From “Independence Day” to the “Men in Black” franchise, “I Robot,” “I Am Legend” and right through to comedies like “Hitch” and “Hancock” Will Smith has proved time and again that he can pull in all sorts of audiences to all sorts of genres, domestically and, importantly, internationally where his bankability is such that even Sony’s statement about the to-date disappointment of “After Earth” mentions their hopes for an overseas bump. In fact, we can believe that if Smith had simply continued in his established vein ad infinitum, he’d have had the same ongoing success. However, perhaps showing that even his stretchy appeal has a limit, it’s possible he's just spread himself too thinly of late.
The Way He Wields His Power for “Good”: Smith has made a few slightly left-of-field, non-tentpole choices, even if they do feel like fairly obvious bids for Award recognition and actor credibility. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could have done “Ali” justice in Michael Mann’s uneven but occasionally great film, but Smith did a fine job of interpreting the great man without resorting to impersonation. If his first go-round with son and “After Earth” co-star Jaden, “The Pursuit of Happyness” was just too po-faced in its sincerity to really be a good film, he was great in it, and it was refreshing to see him use his everyman charm to actually play an everyman (albeit an immensely unlucky one.) “Seven Pounds” felt more like an attempt to replicate that formula than anything else, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” was sweet but forgettable and other than that it’s been all-tentpole all the way.

The Way He Wields His Power for “Evil”: Smith's energies recently have been directed into creating careers for his children -- acting for Jaden, first in ‘Happyness,’ then in the actually-quite-fun ‘Karate Kid’ remake, now in “After Earth.” Same goes for generating singing and acting opportunities for daughter Willow, with her short-lived recording career and once-mooted starring role in the upcoming “Annie” remake (which will now be filled by Quvenzhané Wallis, because, according to Smith in this Vulture piece, Willow no longer wants to do it.) As much as it feels like Smith earned his spot at the top, we’re not sure the halo effect of our goodwill towards him can extend over his whole brood. Otherwise he seems content to go back to the wells that have served him in the past, with “I, Robot 2,” “Bad Boys 3” and even a “Hancock 2” apparently in the works. This, of course, after his big chance to shake things up a bit, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was served to him on a platter, only for him to reject it. Now, we might in the end agree with his mooted reasons for passing on ‘Django,’ and we have mixed (or in this writer’s case, negative) feelings on the finished film, but there’s no denying that to have taken it would have piqued our interest in Smith immeasurably.

Future Projects: Aside from those sequels, Smith has a list of development titles as long as your arm, though we did feel a flutter of potential interest in “Focus” which, while by no means a game changer, is at least an original property that looks like it might tax Smith’s acting chops just a little more than running around shooting things. Also in that category are the Oscar-baity Ed Zwick Katrina movie “The American Can” and possibly the Black List script “The Accountant.” Oh and a remake of "The Wild Bunch," which has been through so many incarnations now that we're not holding our breath for it, if we ever were.
In Summary: It’s early days for “After Earth,” and who knows what kind of overseas numbers it could pull in to make “After Earth 2” a possibility (it’s actually kinda hopefully listed on Smith’s IMDB page at the moment, but we’ll see.) Either way, perhaps a little tarnish on that halo will be a good thing for the star, who has some interesting productions lined up and who perhaps will therefore concentrate more on those and less on future Family Smith Brand Extension Projects.

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably the outlier of this pack in that his trajectory is pretty clear, but he is one of the few A-list stars on the planet that can get almost any movie he wants made.  Ever since “Titanic” when DiCaprio launched into the stratosphere of biggest actors on earth he’s made wise, well-intentioned choices (and he did so before.) DiCaprio is the one actor on this list who not only hasn’t taken a franchise role, he’s never even seemed interested in one. So the “good” and “evil” are very relative here and maybe the evil is more “how he can and should improve.”
The Way He Wields His Power For “Good”: Perhaps the distinction that DiCaprio has over all these actors is taste. While he’s struggled to fit into grown-up roles because of his boyish good looks, his intentions to work with some of the best directors on earth has always been sound. Becoming Martin Scorsese’s new DeNiro-like muse and starring in every film Marty wanted him to even though he might have been too young and therefore not convincing enough for the role (see “The Aviator.” Although this is arguably Marty’s miscalculation.) Since 2000 DiCaprio has worked with Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg, Scorsese (four times,) Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and Baz Luhrmann. It is auteurs-only in the DiCaprio household and regardless whether you like the films or his choices, this is commendable and shows that he is a champion of quality cinema (albeit a slightly safe one, who rarely takes a flier on someone not already well-established.)

The Way He Wields His Power For “Evil”/The Ways He Could Improve: The problem is that is DiCaprio is essentially always playing the lead and some variation of the damaged protagonist or anti-hero (see “Revolutionary Road,” “Inception,” “J. Edgar,” “Shutter Island” etc.) While the actor’s been nominated for three Academy Awards thus far, it took a delicious villain turn in “Django Unchained” (which he was ironically not nominated for) to demonstrate just how safe and boring DiCaprio’s choices have become of late. Yes, he’s working with the best. But DiCaprio desperately needs to try new things and stretch his wings. Yes, it’s nice to be the center of attention and to greenlight big projects made by auteurs, but if he’s truly going to make his mark, then it’s high time he started switching things up a la ‘Django’ before his routine becomes too stale. While it's not "evil" per se, DiCaprio is also notoriously becoming the Ridley Scott of actors. That is to say he has 24 projects in development on his IMDB page and that’s probably 24 projects that those poor writers and producers are likely never going to see out in the light of day. Granted, DiCaprio is only a producer on some, but the actor, like Scott, has the bad habit of developing dozens of projects at the same time hoping one of them will be to his liking. What ends up happening is they simmer forever and then a hot new tasty dish comes along and takes up all his attention. It’s sort of the way DiCaprio dates; why buy the cow when there’s so much milk out there to taste?
Future Projects: A fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) illustrates that DiCaprio isn’t about to drop the damaged dramatic protagonist role any time soon. Please Leo, stretch your wings a little.
In Summary: Kid could stand to be much less safe in his choice of collaborators, but otherwise he’s got his heart in the right place. Bear in mind though, as Johnny Depp has proved, there’s plenty of time to sell out in your forties and fifties.

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  • Donella | September 4, 2013 6:08 AMReply

    1. The writers at the Onion have a strange, unnatural obsession with Black children that makes one wonder about the demographic of the editorial staff. There have been frequent sightings of mean-spirited commentary on Sasha Obama, Quvenzhane Wallis, and now Jaden Smith.

    2. The star and lead protagonist of After Earth is Jaden Smith, not Will Smith, so it makes no sense to compare Jaden's box office revenue to Will Smith's two decades of greatest hits.

    3. Will Smith would be better served with direction by Spike Lee or Lee Daniels or Steve McQueen moreso than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino's desire for hipster coolness overshadows artistry as a comparison of 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained will show.

  • Chinny | July 1, 2013 4:51 PMReply

    Yes, two of the biggest movie stars, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, really did make a movie together once, and yes, the movie received middlin/mediocre ratings on RT and meta critic (more awful movies get ranked and trashed on a weekly basis though, don't know why this one's 'fair' critiques are overblown)...
    ....however yes, it did gross almost 300 million worldwide (see the term, blockbuster, defined)...and despite all the odd, intense revisionist jackhole disdain, it was NOT Gigli, nor was it anything approaching the pathetic pablum rom com duds that Pitt's ex assaults us with, seemingly tri-annually.

    Get a grip, and please get over it.

  • Jeff | June 9, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    Call me crazy, but we could see Channing Tatum make a run for this club. He could easily grab Will Smith's spot as being the likeable everyman in blockbuster tentpoles, especially since Will has lost his grasp on what make audiences like him in the first place. He opened up 3 different movies, only one of which was based on an established property, at over $35 million domestic, grossing over $100 million each time. His next 3 movies, White House Down, 21 Jump Street 2, and Jupiter Ascending all look to have a really good chance to either match or eclipse those. In a year or two, this will either read genius or insane, depending on the Wachowskis, most likely.

  • Donella | September 4, 2013 6:01 AM

    So much for

    White House Down ($135,000,000 ww box office/$150,000,000 budget) outdoing

    Jaden Smith's After Earth ($243,000,000 ww box office/$130,000,000 budget).

  • Marlon | June 8, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    For a decade, people have been saying, whenever a new DiCaprio movie was announced: Oh, he's all wrong for that part, miscast, he won't be able to pull that off. Every. Goddam. Time. From The Aviator through J. Edgar, Inception, Django and Gatsby. And he always nails it.

    Now, suddenly, the criticism is: he's always playing it safe. Good grief, he just can't win, can he?

  • JD | June 5, 2013 9:17 AMReply

    I enjoy coming to this site from time to time for its blunt and (mostly honest) editorial content and less industry based than some of the competition but I've noticed recently how hard the Playlist team are pushing Lone Ranger as a must-see summer blockbuster seemingly, because you were invited to an early footage screening for the press.

    Since when did it become a "sure to be tentpole hit"?. I'm sure what you saw was entertaining but the film itself remains to be seen by most so let's not get ahead of ourselves considering its only tracking to top out at 122 million domestically and critically its highly unlikely to be showered with praise. Can you at least wait till you see the finished package before making outlandish claims.

  • oogle monster | June 4, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    What about Matt Damon?

  • MBrane | June 4, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    Spot on about Brad Pitt, he has the most interesting choices. A bit harsh on diCaprio in the Aviator, I thought. Felt he worked there, though not in most of his other Scorsese adaptations. More like Django would be good (he was the best thing in it).
    Depp has had a lot of good movies over the years and still attempts the odd interesting thing (Public Enemies, Rum Diary). His Tonto looks fun (ish) and nice to see a Native American lead character (even if he's only marginally Native). Transcendence might be good.
    Think Will Smith is the most "evil" on your list - he's had very few interesting movies in his past, very few good performances, and seems to have almost no interest in playing non-schmaltzy or non-action roles. Pity as he has some charm and a bit of talent. Just terrible taste.

  • Tobi | June 4, 2013 8:29 AMReply

    Your assessment on Depp had me dying in laughter. Even funnier because it's all true. And I've been arguing that point with DiCaprio for a decade now; all of his roles have the same 'anti-hero, emotionally flawed' blueprint to them like you mentioned, just to various degrees and different settings. That's why Django was just a relief. I'm very interested in Jolie directing more films, especially smaller more passion driving projects as was mentioned here. And I was wondering where Clooney was in this, but your points (he's older and his projects are more cerebral then huge blockbusters) are spot on.

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:27 AMReply

    There are kinda limited actors like Matt Damon who choose projects so carefully that they practically never have misfires. And on the other hand there is Hugh Jackman who, in my opinion, is more gifted artisticaly but prefers to participate in crap movies.

  • Frencheagermoviebuff | June 5, 2013 7:03 AM

    I agree with you Cromby mouse, while I would not be that categoric about Matt Damon who, in my opinion, is a fine actor with some flaws in his choices (not a lot indeed). I really like him , and he seems to be such a charming person !

    Anyway, I found this article a little harsh with Leo DiCaprio who is such a gifted actor, and comparing his long list of projects with his love/sex life is not very accurate and smart ! And just after that you indicates the list of Brad Pitt's projects which is as long as Leo's.

    The both of them seem to be the most accomplished comedians in this list. Brad has a great screen presence, Leo too, and they are the most versatile ! Sooo much better than Will Smith and, nowadays, Johnny Depp !

  • Ned | June 3, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Leo really needs to try something new. So far he's been a one trick pony.

  • Noah | June 3, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    I mean, can you fault the guy for not wanting to star in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” after the disastrous first attempt well-documented in “The Man From La Mancha?”

    I do. It wasn't Gilliam's fault that Quixote fell apart the first time around. But what I really fault Depp for is developing his own Quixote project without so much as a courtesy call to Gilliam, who was supposedly his friend. He's the new Marlon Brando: A boring, money-grubbing sell-out whose best work is LONG since behind him.

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:32 AM

    Yeah, Depp once had a great image but since he sat on a horse named "Jack Sparrow, he can't get off.

    Brad Pitt is opposite, what a great actor and artist!

  • Mitchell | June 3, 2013 7:11 PMReply

    Willow Smith isn't starring in Annie, Quvenzhane Wallis is.

  • Jess | June 3, 2013 7:19 PM

    thanks, yes, we've clarified that in the text.

  • Tom | June 3, 2013 6:49 PMReply

    Interesting piece! Indeed, it is disgusting to see Depp's awful track list from the last couple of years.. On the other hand, mad props for Pitt. His mishaps (Mr. and Mrs. Smith!) are easily forgotten when you have the Tree of Life, Moneyball, and the Assassination to counter it.

    I maybe expected an "honorable mention" for Ryan Gosling. Drive would have been a generic piece of crap without him picking Refn to turn it into a masterpiece, and didn't he kickstart Cianfrance's career as well? Agreed, he does not have tha A-list allure or franchise to put him in the list as a full-on member, but being (at least partially) responsible for Refn and Cianfrance is not bad, is it?

  • SUP | June 3, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    I disagree about DiCaprio playing the same role in every movie. The only time that happened was in 2010 when he did play very similar characters in both Inception and Shutter Island. Whether he was too young to play Howard Hughes in The Aviator is a matter of opinion so that's fair, but as I understand it DiCaprio brought that to Scorsese, not the other way around.

  • AE | June 3, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    Do any of them really hold that much power? They earn a lot of people a lot of money, and I imagine those people are very careful their wards don't stray too far from 'acceptable taste' and the star's projected image.

  • Thomas | June 3, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    I have to disagree with your assessment of DiCaprio. I think it's a bit unfair and off base. There seems to be an underlying contempt masked as constructive criticism. He's the finest actor of his generation, one who has only gotten better with each role. There's nothing "boring" or "safe" about any of the choices he makes. He's constantly challenging himself and only trying broaden his horizons seeing how much more he can grow. Shutter Island is his greatest performance to date, in fact. He's never less than consistent, and is one of the more versatile actors on the planet. That you find them all to be a variation of the same character is perhaps more an unwillingness to get to the core of the characters he portrays (perhaps through a distraction by his boyish looks, or whatever), and the different complexities and nuances they carry, not through any problem of his own. He's been stretching his wings with quality projects and filmmakers, that maybe otherwise wouldn't have gotten the attention they deserve without his presence since 1993, but for some people, I guess that will simply never be enough. I see the out of place comment about the women in his life, and can't help but think you're letting his lifestyle color your perceptions of him and seep into your consciousness of him as an artist.

    There was no miscalculation with The Aviator either. It's one of the best, most harrowing and accurate portrayals of OCD you'll ever see anywhere. That was a revelatory performance. And, judging only from the nominees that year, should've been an Oscar-winning one, too.

    If there's one area in which he can improve, I would say that he perhaps takes himself and his work a bit too seriously and could stand a lighter approach once in awhile, which he accomplished in Django Unchained. But it's a minor quibble, at least as far as I'm concerned.

  • Mr Guest | June 7, 2013 7:39 PM

    @ Cromby Mouse Yeah except for that horrendous accent

  • Cromby Mouse | June 4, 2013 8:30 AM

    The Aviator was great, classic turn by Di Caprio but I'd also like to mention Blood Diamond. Besides that sort of cheesy ending it is a terrifc movie and Leo is especially convincing in it.

  • kitcon | June 3, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Smith -- Django showed how risk averse he is w/ his acting choices. He probably thought he was using his power for good in getting Shyamalan a job. He seems more interested in his kids and producing. The results of After Earth probably worry him more for Jaden's career than his own. Which means he'll next be focused on finding a film that will give Jaden a hit.

    DiCaprio - All those directors are great but almost all of them would not have had much problem getting another star in his place and their films still green lit. It would be nice to see him work with lesser known directors in more intimate films.

    Jolie - She's next directing Unbroken and got the Coens to rewrite the script which in itself shows her clout. Everyone knows she's a bit of an oddball ( and I don't mean that negatively). She either makes films she is passionate about or as a matter of expediency. She made your fav The Tourist because she wanted her kids to vacation in Venice. But now that she is no longer worried about her physical longevity perhaps she'll be more focused.

    Depp - Perhaps it's a midlife crisis kind of thing where despite all he has, he's worried that it might not be enough. He complained about taxes in France too and asked for $15M to make The Rum Diary -- his own passion project.

    Cruise -- I think he just loves being a star -- perks, pay and all. And he sees action movies as his best bet to staying in the mix. Hence the back to back to back action flicks.

    Pitt - Z sounds like its a decent Summer blockbuster. He can be forgiven for wanting his own franchise. He's got bills to pay and has not had the mega paydays that Smith, Cruise, Depp and Downey have had.

  • Donella | June 4, 2013 10:29 AM

    I agree with you, Edward. Many readers of the script pointed out what Smith also knew--Django was a dead-end, static role overshadowed by the dialogue and action written for the supporting cast--Schultz, Candie, and Stephen. Not "there" there. Smith was right to pass up the role.

  • Edward Davis | June 4, 2013 8:34 AM

    "Smith -- Django showed how risk averse he is w/ his acting choices" Vehemently disagree. While it reads that way on the surface, Smith was astute enough to realize that Django wasn't the lead or best written character. That was King Schultz. Django is the least interesting main character in Django Unchained, Candie, Shultz and Stephen outshine him at every turn because they're colorful. Django is essentially monosyllabic at first and then grows to be sort of one-note bad ass, but that's it.

    It's Waltz who went on to win the Oscar, rightfully so and Jamie Foxx didn't even get nominated because that role is dead boring. Kudos for Smith for being able to pinpoint that. Django is the superficial lead of Django Unchained, but his character is ironically the most poorly written of all the main characters.

  • owdl114 | June 3, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    “The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus” is a near-abomination

    Really? I think that's quite extreme. It's not up there with the best of Gilliam's work but I didn't think it was anywhere near terrible.

  • Chris | June 3, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    Sorry, but DiCaprio was fantastic in "The Aviator." He would have been a far more worthy Oscar winner than Jamie Foxx and his shallow mimicry in "Ray." (Though my personal choice of the nominated bunch, since Paul Giamatti wasn't nominated, would have been Don Cheadle from "Hotel Rwanda.")

  • Cris | June 3, 2013 11:16 PM


  • Nolan | June 3, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    Surprised there was no mention of Pitt nearly putting "The Fountain" to bed. Then again, the film may have been better off with a smaller budget, but who knows. Honestly, though, I think Brad Pitt has done better work than most of the people on this list. Leo plays it safe (and Gatsby is awful,) and I can't remember the last time Johnny Depp was in a good movie. Oh, wait, he was in "Before Night Falls" for a few minutes.

  • Sexton Blake | June 3, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Angelina's recent announcement regarding her double mastectomy far exceeds any film she could greenlit for 'good', no?

  • Freddie | July 1, 2013 4:42 PM

    Shhhh. The whole purpose of this exercise that passes for writing is to throw major shade at the only woman on the list, why'd you think the opening line of Angelina's blurb has the writer attributing her success and accomplishment to Brad Pitt. #teamsmackabish I think if Angelina had never met Brad she would have continued on as she was, breaking box office in franchise/action films and winning Oscars for indies and doing her humanitarian work...all things she did before she even met him. I will say Brad Pitt, like he keeps saying in interviews was in a rut in the early 2000s, and has done some of his best work, personally and professionally, since he met Jolie.

  • blahblah boo boo | June 3, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    Does Cruise really still have "greenlight power" In the Mountains of Madness and the Cameron Crowe Marvin Gaye film were shelved with Cruise attached. Disney even shitcanned Oblivion, Universal grabbed that in turnaround.

  • Dave | June 3, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    Downey has joined the dark side. Dropping out of Inherent Vice for Perry Mason and Pinnochio? Evil.

  • Frank | June 3, 2013 4:06 PM

    He didn't drop out. PTA went with Joaquin instead. @Sexton. Not sure what her (very brave) double mastectomy has to do with movies.

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