Are star-studded (ensemble casting) projects bad for Nollywood?

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About a fortnight ago, one Maduka Ekene, writing on TheNaked Convos bemoaned the parading of stars in Nollywood movies. “I think several top stars sharing the screen is coming all too soon, the writer said. It “takes away the ‘mystery’ effect surrounding A-listers”. Ekene gave some example of recently released star-studded movies including “30 days in Atlanta”, “A trip to Jamaica” “The Wedding Party” and a yet to be released “Lion Heart” to buttress his point. “I don’t want to see another big project with a congregation of famous faces. I honestly don’t”, he added.

Part of the reasons Ekene gave for this unenthusiastic response to an ensemble case was that having a star-studded cast does not necessarily guarantee a top performance, and such a star-studded movie can actually end up being nothing but “Wack”. He further noted that a movie with a good storyline and a cast of unknown actors can actually do well at the box office if they cast gave outstanding interpretations of their roles. He cited “Game of Thrones” as an example of such a scenario.

The article since its publication has received some media attention, notably from an OP-ED  Editor at YNAija. The editor noted that Ekene’s few examples of such star-studded movies defeat his argument, as it portrayed him as not an avid follower of Nollywood movie releases. Examples were given of Nollywood movies with casts of relatively unknown faces, which the YNaija editor insisted were good movies such as “Slow Country”, “Lotanna”, “The Arbitration”, “Dazzling Mirage”, “Oko Asewo”, “Green White Green”, “A Soldier’s Story”, “Ojukokoro”, “Ayamma” amongst others. The dissing in the YNaija article was quite apparent, and the author was quite dismissive of Ekene and the opinion he expressed in the Naked Convo article. But was that offhand reaction merited?

It is pertinent to note that the editor did not address any of the points raised by Ekene and that he narrowed his argument to the few examples that Ekene provided. It is, therefore, the opinion of the present writer, that the YNaija editor missed the point – and by a wide margin. And NO, the criticism of Nollywood on TheNakedConvos did NOT actually prove the point. It is also the opinion of the present writer that some of the points raised by Ekene has some merits. Lurking beyond the handful of examples for which Ekene was ridiculed are pertinent issues that deserve some consideration.

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Let me also state from the word go that I personally have nothing against having a star-studded cast or an ensemble cast. The practice is not necessarily a bad (or good) thing and many examples abound of such movies that had gone ahead to win awards (or flop). I shall draw my examples from Hollywood with which I am more conversant. For instance, one of the earliest ensemble casts movies in Hollywood was “Grand Hotel” (1932), a great movie that starred Joan Crawford, John Barrymore and Wallace Beery (at the time the highest-paid actor in the world). The movie has been preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry for its cultural significance. There is also the 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, which starred Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman as the main characters. The movie was well received both at the box office and among critics. It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. One of the actors, Jonathan Winters, was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award Best Actor musical or comedy.

Another successful ensemble cast is Hollywood heist comedy movie “Ocean Eleven” that starred George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle Andy García and Matt Damon. The movie performed well at the box-office and critics praised it. It even spilt two sequels “Ocean Twelve” and “Ocean Thirteen”, which were all box-office hit.

A further example is “Short Cuts”, a 1993 comedy-drama movie that starred Andie MacDowell, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon and Lily Tomlin. The movie scored an impressive 95% on Rotten Tomatoes  (a respected movie website) based on 55 reviews, with the consensus being that “Robert Altman’s (the director) ensemble drama deftly integrates its disparate characters and episodes into a funny, poignant, emotionally satisfying whole.” Altman was nominated for the Best Director category at the Academy Award and the cast won a Special Golden Globe Award for their ensemble acting. The film also won the prestigious Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup for Best Ensemble Cast at the Venice Film Festival.

Other examples exist of movies with star-studded casts that were generally well received by audiences such as “The Expendables”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Crash”, “Love Actually”, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Marvel’s The Avengers” Series, “Bridesmaid”, etc.

Conversely, star-studded movies have also been known to be poorly executed and box office failures. A notable example is the 1993 Hollywood movie “Movie 43”, a collection of different sketches that took 12 directors to make and numerous actors including famous ones such as Kate Winslet, Emma Stone, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere, Anna Faris, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Uma Thurman, Chris Pratt, Terrence Howard and Bobby Cannavale. The movie performed very poorly at the box office and holds a rating of 4% on Rotten Tomatoes. It won three Raspberry Awards.

“Valentine day” (2010) is another star-studded movie that was poorly executed. Admittedly, the movie did well in the box office grossing over $216 million on a budget of $52 million dollars, so yes, the producers ‘ain’t crying’. However, the movie was panned by critics and moviegoers scored and scored a very disappointing 18% based on 184 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus was the movie was “Eager to please and stuffed with stars, Valentine’s Day squanders its promise with a frantic, episodic plot and an abundance of rom-com clichés.”

“Alexander” (2004), a historical film based on the life of Alexander the Great. The movie paraded an array of stars that included Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto, that one would have thought would make it a sure winner, but sadly, that was not to be. Aside from the controversy surrounding the accuracy or otherwise of history surrounding that figure, the movie was a box office bomb and barely made even after even. It was panned by critics and considered “Not just a bad movie but a bad movie of truly epic proportions” by Toronto Star. It holds a rating of 16% on Rotten Tomatoes based on based on 196 reviews, with the consensus being that “Even at nearly three hours long, this ponderous, talky, and emotionally distant biopic fails to illuminate Alexander’s life.

The 1965 epic movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told” that depicted the life of Jesus Christ, arguably a hard story to pull off was another movie that was not well executed despite its star-studded composition. Critics view are mixed and some say the casting was all wrong and that the pop of familiar faces detracted from the experience. The movie suffered a loss at the box office and currently has a rating of 37% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 19 reviews.

Other examples abound on such star-studded movies that delivered below expectations such as “G-Force”, “Running with Scissors”, “Masked and Anonymous”, “Amelia”, “The Big Wedding”, The Invention of Lying”, “Dirty Grandpa”, “Ocean Twelve” (even though it performed well at the box office was critically panned), amongst others.

So, what do all these tell us? Simply, that the cast is just one part of the equation to making a memorable movie, and that a star-studded cast is not a guarantee that a movie will come out great. Which brings us back to Ekene’s criticism. To that extent, he is partially right, a star-studded movie can end up being either be a success or a disappointment. There are other factors that interplay as well.

Ekene’s assertion that having all those stars in one movie can water down the star status effect, I think is farfetched. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie, Mark Wahlberg, Sandra Bullocks, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino, Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro, are just a handful of A-Listers that have appeared in star-studded casts, and there is no evidence that those appearances diminished any of their statuses. Yet, I can equally understand Ekene’s point here, that frequent appearance in an ensemble movie will tend to reduce the value placed on these actors’ works.

Which brings us to another point raised by Ekene, that flooding the industry with star-studded movies reduces the excitement that such a movie would ordinarily have generated. He gave as an example such collaborations as have been witnessed among music artists, and the limited buzz those collaborations seem to generate these days. My personal experience is this: I have a cursory interest in who is collaborating with who in the music industry as it seems to be a fairly common phenomenon and there is no excitement any longer for me in that regard. If I were to extrapolate my feelings to Nollywood on the strength of that, then I would tend to agree with Ekene that, yes, frequent production of ensemble movies can actually harm the industry. Therefore, it would be more advantageous for the industry to tread carefully in that regard and limit the frequent casting of well-known faces. This, in turn, will tend to increase the anticipation/craving by the public for such work, thereby raising their worth.

The other point raised by Ekene that a well-executed movie with less known faces can perform well at the box-office has already been addressed by OP-Editor at YNaija (whether he realised it or not) by the many examples of such Nollywood movies that he provided.

Final thoughts…

There is nothing inherently undesirable in the production of star-studded movies in Nollywood. Hollywood has been treading that part for a long time, and some of the most memorable films of that film industry are ensemble casts. However, Nollywood producers need to proceed carefully in this regard to avoid the saturation of the industry with such movies, which can potentially harm the value of such work – such works should be a rarity rather than the norm. Where a movie is to be an ensemble cast, it is important to get the story right and to have characters with defined goals. Where possible, it is best to match each actor with a character that matches their natural ability. Experimenting otherwise can actually backfire. Finally, a production team headed by a great director to bring it all together, and tell the story as it was intended is very crucial for such a movie (or any for that matter) to be successful.

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