Are we living in the age of the ensemble? It would certainly appear so. Gone are the days when a single star was expected to bring audiences to theaters in droves. Now, a whole herd of A-listers is needed to make a movie worth watching – or so the major studios and streamings services would have us believe.
The most recent explosion of casting announcements came courtesy of Knives Out 2, due to arrive on Netflix next year, which sees Daniel Craig joined by Dave Bautista, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Ethan Hawke, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Phew. Netflix isn't slowing down with the all-star ensembles, either – this December, the streamer’s releasing Don't Look Down, a dark comedy directed by Adam McKay, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, and Ariana Grande. And then there’s The Harder They Fall, starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, and Lakeith Stanfield. Phew.
What happened to the bankable star?
It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, Hollywood was all about an actor’s 'star power'. The rise of the celebrity in the 20th Century went hand-in-hand with the singular, bankable star, with actors becoming marketing tools for the movies they appeared in. Studios knew that a powerful name like Will Smith or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Julia Roberts would guarantee to put butts in seats.
Today, there are maybe one or two actors – Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson spring to mind – who can still bring people to theaters, no matter the movie. Even then, Johnson is rarely in a lineup without several other A-listers – his upcoming Netflix movie, Red Notice, sees him share the screen with Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. In the case of Cruise, the Mission: Impossible movies have added several other famous faces, like Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett, to star alongside him.
"The idea of star power used to be in global audience recognition, a major star in a movie might ensure global success here and in the international marketplace," Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst, told the Observer in 2018. "A Tom Cruise, a Will Smith, a Julia Roberts. Classic names that could ensure foreign pre-sales and solid box office."
So, what changed? Dergarabedian points to big-budget blockbusters like Marvel and Fast and Furious, and how "big stars need a concept in concert with that star power to create excitement". Essentially: franchises are what draw people in. It doesn't matter if people have never heard of a Marvel movie’s lead actor, they simply want to see the next Marvel movie. Just look at Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Simu Liu was best known for Kim's Convenience before joining the MCU as Shang-Chi. Conversely, when leaving an MCU role behind, you’re not guaranteed to be a box-office draw: Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man movies brought in billions of dollars, yet the actor’s first post-Marvel project, Dolittle, was a box-office bomb. People want to see Iron Man, not Robert Downey Jr.
Not every movie can be tied to a franchise – and without a comic book for source material, studios are bringing together arsenals of stars for original productions, often featuring casts seemingly cobbled together by an algorithm. As a result, we’ve seen increasingly stacked casts with actors lacking chemistry with one another. Not having one defined lead can also make a movie feel un-anchored, too. When a group becomes the focus of a blockbuster, the script often gets caught up in the quips between characters trying to outsmart or out-sarcasm each other.
Even Marvel’s feeling the need to compete with these ensembles. Following the success of Avengers comes Eternals, which follows an immortal alien race secretly living among humans. The movie features Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, and Kit Harington. One star, it seems, is no longer enough.
There’s also increasing emphasis on the talent behind the camera to bring audiences to theaters. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are big draws and have their own dedicated fanbases (although neither director has any trouble finding A-listers to work with). Streaming platforms are also signing on creatives for multi-project deals – for instance, Netflix has signed on Ryan Murphy (The Politician, Halston, The Prom) and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) to produce original series and movies.
Do ensembles win awards?
Single star movies, however, tend to be the big award winners. Being critically acclaimed, though, doesn't necessarily mean being a big box office draw. Nomadland, which picked up the gongs for Best Picture, Best Director for Chloé Zhao, and Best Actress for Frances McDormand, is primarily a one-woman affair – the movie follows McDormand's character Fern through the American west as she tries to cobble a living together from seasonal work. However, the movie grossed $37.4 million, a fifth of Zhao's budget for Eternals.
Meanwhile, the award for Best Actor was won by Anthony Hopkins for his role in The Father, a film about a woman (Olivia Colman) dealing with her father's (Hopkins) dementia that earned $24 million at the box office. The majority of other award winners in early 2021 also revolved around one or two central characters, including Promising Young Woman (Carey Mulligan's Cassie), Judas and the Black Messiah (Daniel Kaluuya's Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield's William O'Neal), and Sound of Metal (Riz Ahmed's Ruben). However, between them, these three movies made less than $23 million.
Where ensembles were once a novelty, they are now looking anything but. Yet, mammoth casts come at the risk of being detrimental to a movie rather than adding something that couldn't be achieved with fewer characters – and actors.