The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that franchise movies with identifiable brand-name characters are far more valuable at the box office than the movie stars who play them. Hugh Jackman on his own isn't much of an audience draw; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, however, still very much is.
But this weekend, one bona fide superstar — Angelina Jolie — asserted just how much power a single actor can still hold over the box office. Meanwhile, a man who has created his own wildly popular comedy brand — Seth MacFarlane — proved there are limits to his jack-of-all-trades success.
The Jolie-led Maleficent opened with an estimated $70 million, the best box office debut in the actress' career, even when adjusting for inflation. It is also one of the highest opening weekends for a solo female star ever, behind only the first two Hunger Games movies. To be sure, Maleficent was an opulently designed, big-canvas movie based on one of Disney's most beloved animated features, 1959's Sleeping Beauty.
But the film was sold almost exclusively on Jolie's otherworldly face. By contrast, Columbia Pictures presented The Amazing Spider-Man 2 largely as a confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro, not between Andrew Garfield and Jamie Foxx. Jennifer Lawrence kicked major butt as Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but that film featured a sprawling ensemble cast — and was sold as such. Maleficent's main draw was all about seeing Angelina Jolie embody one of the best Disney villains of all time: Come see Angelina with horns! And wings! And cheekbones that could cut you! It's nearly impossible to imagine any other actress working today who could take on that role with as much anticipation — and ultimate success — as Jolie, and that is a mark of a true movie star.
Seth MacFarlane, however, is not one. A Million Ways to Die in the West — directed, co-written, and starring MacFarlane in his live-action big-screen debut (he previously voiced the title teddy bear in Ted) — opened with an estimated $17.1 million. That is less than a third of what Ted opened with in 2012, and lower than the debuts of recent comedies The Other Woman and Neighbors, and 2013 comedies The Internship, This Is the End, We're the Millers, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Identity Thief, and The Heat.
Granted, it could be worse. (Like, say, Adam Sandler's Blended.) There was always likely to be a ceiling on how popular a comedy that satirizes the conventions of the American Wild West was going to be. MacFarlane wisely cast two well-established movie stars — Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson — as his love interest and antagonist (respectively), and Universal Pictures made sure to sell the movie on its entire ensemble (including Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, and Amanda Seyfried), and not just MacFarlane.
But there is no escaping MacFarlane's decision to cast himself in his movie's lead role, despite having zero experience as an actor with his actual face and body instead of just his voice (in addition to Ted, there's the multitude of characters he plays on his animated series for Fox). The only other time MacFarlane has been in front of an audience, in fact, was hosting the Academy Awards in 2013, a gig that pulled in strong ratings, and even stronger recriminations.
As an expansion of the MacFarlane comedy brand, A Million Ways to Die in the West wasn't an irrevocable disaster; its reported $40 million budget was relatively modest. But if MacFarlane ever hopes to become a true movie star — on top of being a successful writer, director, voice performer, and crooner of American standards — he's going to have to figure out how to get his audience to care as much about what he does in front of the camera as what he's done behind it.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Maleficent* — $70 million
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past — $32.6 million
3. A Million Ways to Die in the West* — $17.1 million
4. Godzilla — $12.2 million
5. Blended — $8.4 million
6. Neighbors — $7.7 million
7. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — $3.8 million
8. Million Dollar Arm — $3.7 million
9. Chef — $2 million
10. The Other Woman — $1.4 million