Some big stars are in more throwaway movies than box-office hits

Posted August 1

John Travolta stars as a vengeful former Black Ops agent in "I Am Wrath," which went straight to video. (Deseret Photo)

These days, character actor Donald Sutherland is primarily known to younger audiences for his appearances as President Snow in the Hunger Games movies. But he was a big star in the 1970s and ’80s after the movie “MASH” became a box-office smash.

Sutherland also became known for taking all kinds of roles, large and small, and playing all kinds of characters, which led to his churning out a lot of movies every year — he was in five in 1970, and over that decade appeared in 28 theatrical films.

And most of them flopped.

So when I attended a New York press conference for Sutherland’s latest movie in 1981, one journalist didn’t hesitate to ask why he made so many bad movies.

The question was surprising and a bit more aggressive than most of us were used to hearing in that kind of setting. But Sutherland’s answer was quick and classic: “I don’t go into a picture saying, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a bad one!’ I think they’re all going to be wonderful.”

Of course, a cynic might suggest that it’s really a payday decision: Sure, it’s a lousy script and a mediocre director, but hey, it’s only a few days’ work and it’s a fat paycheck.

On the other hand, some stars just like to work. They want to keep exercising the acting muscles and are perhaps not getting that many great scripts. Do they take a lesser project or sit around the house and wait, perhaps for too long a time, for a better offer? And it’s an even more likely scenario the older they get.

Sutherland, 81 now, still works a lot. He co-stars in a European TV series and appears in 12 episodes annually, and he has three movies scheduled for release this year.

Of course, whether those movies will go to theaters is anyone’s guess.

A lot of major Hollywood stars these days — Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta chief among them — are popping up in throwaway movies. Literal throwaways.

As in, the studios have thrown these films away by giving them straight-to-video/streaming releases instead of scheduling them for theaters. And fans throw them away by turning them off halfway through or falling asleep.

After all, any movie that starts out bad and doesn’t get better by the halfway point isn’t likely to take a sharp turn to greatness.

Of course, this is all based on the presumption that Willis and Cage and Travolta are still major movie stars.

They were once.

Willis, for example seems to be in every other one of these.

Looking at the past five years, his theatrical films have included small parts in “Rock the Kasbah,” “The Cold Light of Day” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” along with co-starring roles in “Looper” and sequels to “The Expendables,” “G.I. Joe,” “Sin City,” and of course “Die Hard.”

During the same period, Willis has also been in even more nearly invisible, nontheatrical films with generic titles you’ve never heard of, which arrived on DVD and on-demand streaming sites with zero fanfare: “Precious Cargo,” “Marauders,” “Extraction,” “Vice,” “The Prince,” “Fire With Fire,” “Lay the Favorite,” “Catch .44” and “Setup.”

And despite his limited screen time in most of these, Willis’ face is plastered all over the movies’ online posters and DVD covers, luring unsuspecting fans into wasting a couple of hours for each one.

Nicolas Cage usually has bigger roles in his straight-to-video movies, but you’ve still likely never heard of “Dog Eat Dog,” “The Trust,” “Pay the Ghost,” “The Runner,” “Dying of the Light,” “Outcast,” “Rage,” “The Frozen Ground,” “Trespass,” “Stolen” and “Seeking Justice.”

Ditto John Travolta’s most recent flicks: “I am Wrath,” “In a Valley of Violence,” “Criminal Activities,” “Life on the Line,” “The Forger,” “Killing Season” and “Savages.”

Kind of makes you wonder if this is the ultimate future for Matt Damon, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg or Brad Pitt.

Buyer beware.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.


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