Jonathan Majors and the Risks of Movie Stardom for the Modern Film Industry
However Majors’ drama plays out, the business model of mid-tier movies with a famous face needs to change.
It’s been a tough few weeks for fame, whether it’s Donald Trump, Jonathan Majors or Gwyneth Paltrow. (Okay, maybe not Paltrow, who won a lawsuit, won $1 in damages while wearing expensive clothes, and resurrected the grotesque spectacle of a live-streamed court hearing from the horrors of the Depp/Heard horror show to win back camp.)
Anyone who lives in the spotlight faces the possibility of a public showdown and the collateral damage that comes with it. After Majors was arrested and charged with assault and harassment, the news cycle immediately cast doubt on his future. Now that he’s been let go by various Majors projects, the fallout reveals a film business blunder. When you build projects around movie stars, you create a liability.
Majors’ lawyer claims evidence of his innocence, but his agency and publicity team dropped the actor this month. So have several upcoming projects, including Protagonist Pictures’ adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel The Man in My Basement, a series of commercials for the Texas Rangers baseball team, and an unannounced Otis Redding biopic from Season Five. (He’s still attached to Spike Lee’s Amazon project Da Understudy, probably because Spike is such a fighter that he won’t let go of his star until someone forces his hand.)
Marvel hasn’t expanded on Majors’ supervillain Kang the Conqueror yet, but it’s easy to see why: Disney has the time and the wherewithal — its next project with Majors hasn’t set a clear production schedule, and there won’t be a huge legacy problem. if “Loki” Season 2 comes out with just an awkward vibe. From there, the studio has enough money to decide whether to move on or rewrite the character with a multiverse twist.
In contrast, Majors’ drama poses a serious challenge to Searchlight, which acquired the 2023 Sundance hit “Magazine Dreams” after a lengthy bidding war in hopes of launching a best actor campaign. This disturbing thriller builds on Majors’ impressive performance as a lonely and unstable bodybuilder – and his emerging currency in popular culture as the new villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While 21st-century star power remains a dubious conceit outside of Tom Cruise — the “Fast and Furious” movies sell more cars than people, the “Avatar” movies sell VFX — it still maintains a tyranny over the mediocrity. budget market. Films under $10 million can go up or down based on the individual’s involvement. (“Magazine Dreams” cost about $7 million.) As astounding as the achievement is, a business model built on the actions and reputation of one person carries greater risk.
Searchlight is one of the few studio divisions that still has the increasingly complicated equation of taking challenging films to wide release, and some say the Majors scandal is giving off a distressing sense of deja vu. Seven years ago, the company endured “Birth of a Nation,” after buying it for the highest price in Sundance history, to witness director Nate Parker face sexual assault allegations dating back to his time at Penn State.
That scandal preceded the sale of the studio to Disney, which has a much lower tolerance for public debauchery—especially for artistic projects less relevant to the studio’s core. A more accurate comparison is last year: when Searchlight’s “Being Mortal” was halted midway through production due to Bill Murray’s bad behavior, Disney killed the project rather than let director Aziz Ansari recast the role. Now that Searchlight’s future in the wider Disney universe remains an open question, the possibility of “Magazine Dreams” going straight to Hulu is growing by the day.
Sources say Searchlight is still taking a wait-and-see approach on this one; no one wants to pull the trigger until they know more about the charges. But the Hulu release is partly an inevitable outcome because — irony of ironies — “Magazine Dreams” will likely do well on streaming, and perhaps even better because of the scandal surrounding it.
While this is still an unfortunate outcome for Searchlight, if you’re looking for a place to put your sympathy, consider director Elijah Bynum. “Magazin Dreams” is his second feature, a bold and powerful riff on “Taxi Driver” that doesn’t shy away from shaking up its audience. At Sundance, it was one of the few titles willing to feel a little dangerous and dare to fail.
If the film had featured an unknown aspiring bodybuilder, “Magazine Dreams” would probably still succeed as a powerful, immersive meditation on the perilous extremes of modern-day masculinity and standards of beauty that no mere mortal can achieve. But “Magazine Dreams” would never have happened to an unknown aspiring bodybuilder. “This movie was not made without a movie star,” Bynum said at Sundance in January. “And any movie, but a real, dedicated actor. We knew this was our only chance.”
Bynum, a former CAA assistant whose first film, Hot Summer Nights, was one of the last A24 pickups under the now-defunct DirecTV deal, had the industry savvy to build his script around Majors’ commitment. “The wish list was just him,” Bynum said, citing everything from Majors’ tender turn in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” to Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” “It didn’t take much to sell me. You see her and immediately there is intensity and vulnerability at the same time. He has a very interesting face, a very cinematic face. You keep a close-up and you don’t have to do more than that. You can feel what he means.”
If you’ve seen Majors in those movies, or even in the mess of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania,” you know Bynum is right. The Majors bathes in nuance and avoids the pitfalls of hyperbole—but when a film’s existence depends on its unique abilities, that’s a risk no E&O policy can touch.
It actually happened at the Sundance party for “Dreams Magazine” when an executive from another production company complained to me about having to build projects around a single actor. When that happens, they often demand a production credit—and knowing that the entire business rests on them, they sometimes want to have a say in the casting process. Even director-oriented actors can imagine themselves as auteurs.
A distributor who passed on “Magazine Dreams” messaged me a few weeks ago to note that the Majors are starting a bigger conversation about financing movies and what gives them a sense of value. And a few days ago, a major filmmaker told me that he felt that way just What got executives fired up at a pitch meeting was a famous name in the cast — unless it was pitching a horror movie.
So many jobs are now judged based on whether or not a known actor is attached, rather than whether the film has the potential to be good. The price tag for “Magazine Dreams” was high, along with the demands of an awards campaign and large-scale theatrical release, all of which were tied to Majors’ reputation. This model leaves no room for individual responsibility.
The truth is that while a single actor can make a movie, or even sell a movie, they guarantee very little ROI. (The one exception: Nicolas Cage, whose VOD currency means his films are easily greenlit for low seven-figure budgets.). It’s more reliable to look at genre, timeliness or, if you’re very lucky, producers who bring other sources to the table. Rian Johnson’s producer role on another Sundance hit, “Fair Play,” almost certainly helped net Netflix $20 million for the $10 million thriller.
Now, let’s hope Johnson—one of the few serious, nice-guy movie types who’s made it big in Hollywood in recent years—lives up to his reputation. But if it got stuck for some terrible reason, “Fair Play” could still thrive. In “Magazine Dreams”, the difficulties are much deeper and there is no easy way out.
Regardless, I recommend that people see this film whenever they can – it’s an engaging conversation starter – and that the dialogue it creates goes far beyond private dramas off-screen. Cinema needs more than just pretty faces to survive its uncertain future.
As always, I look forward to your feedback in the weekly column: [email protected]
See previous columns here.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the tricks of making new films in black and white. Here is a letter I received.
“The article oversimplifies what is there and does not sell. Currently, 55% of Sundance titles have yet to earn the do itmestic distribution business. This includes 78% of NEXT titles and 83% of world dramatic films. So the two films you cite (“Fremont” and “Mami Wata”) are far from outliers. … More importantly, he fails to note that the only two NEXT films to have secured distribution so far, EACH black and white (“Deity” and “Kokomo City”)… To be fair, there are several things against it black and white movies, but your article comes from a predetermined opinion and omit any information that would undermine your thesis.”
— B. Glick, President of GQue Films
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