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3 Important Things About Angelina’s $70 million Weekend

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1) For starters, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent opening to $70 million at the US box-office tells us that Disney is leading the way with its female-centered narratives. It tells us that they’re a studio who never really lost sight of the female audience through the dark clouds of underrepresentation, releasing three uber-prominent films in recent years (Brave, Frozen, and now Maleficent) that feature female leads, and are in part made by women (Maleficent was written by Linda Woolverton, Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee, Brave was co-directed by Brenda Chapman).

The only problem is that even a studio like Disney doesn’t have enough faith in a female director to give her sole control over a commercial blockbuster (animated or otherwise). Chapman and Lee co-directed their respective films, when an abundance of female artists crafted the rest of the film around them–everywhere from the costumes, to the makeup, to the scripts, to the songs that still linger in our heads and on radio airwaves some six month’s after Frozen‘s release. Disney is returning to a landscape they cornered: films–about women–that are universally appealing.

2) Next, it tells us that Angelina Jolie is one of the few remaining box-office stars of the contemporary era who has a consistent, proven ability to attract audiences. Maleficent opened to $100 million at the international box-office, which is huge. The film undoubtedly had a built-in audience (what tentpole doesn’t?) seeing as it’s directly related to another Disney film, but the studio instead chose to market the almost entirely around Jolie (just take a look at the minimalist poster) versus capitalizing on familiarity with Sleeping Beauty. It’s a film riding on the strengths of its star and not the other way around.

Without any disrespect to the talents of a star like Jennifer Lawrence, she’s the prime example of an actress whose appeal coincided with great roles that became box-office hits; The Hunger Games was not successful because of Jennifer Lawrence (nor was X-Men, nor American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook). Jolie’s stardom will forever transcend any role she takes, and Maleficent is riding high on her appeal. Content transcends the star in so many of today’s blockbusters. Gone are the days when Will Smith or Johnny Depp could lead material that was equally as interesting as they were to new heights of monetary success based on their presence alone. The individual meant something. Instead, we now have material that sweeps its interchangeable stars up in a pre-established swirl of padded appeal. The fact that Jolie is a woman–and the fact that two of the five or so remaining box-office titans  are women (Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock)–speaks volumes about worldwide audience’s active support for stories about women.

3) Lastly, it tells us that the divide between audiences and critics is completely meaningless as film critics lose sight of their duties. Critics, as a whole, dismissed Maleficent as ho-hum, and the conversation on Twitter and Facebook (the “internet court”, as I call it) quickly focused on that because it’s easy to. 140 characters don’t do the middle ground any favors; social media has turned us into a culture of white and black with little (or no) grey area. Maleficent was either going to soar or fail; when the initial reviews came in, the film was deemed a complete embarrassment by the internet court; no one cared that a woman was given the chance to headline a summer blockbuster (when was the last time that happened?). Film critics have forgotten their responsibilities. In a film landscape that repeatedly denies women their due behind and in front of the camera, Maleficent is a marvel for relying on the appeal of its female star and for telling a story revolving around female characters when the industry around it constantly shows us that this is anything but typical. If the film critics don’t make this the conversation, who will?

Sure, you can point to other female-driven blockbusters as indicators of the rising prominence of female stars, but those films (namely The Hunger Games series) and their stars don’t fit in with the discussion about Maleficent or box-office stars for a few reasons:

1) The Hunger Games film series is a Young Adult adaptation, meaning it has a pre-established audience regardless of the actress in the lead role, which means its success cannot be attributed to Jennifer Lawrence. Maleficent had a connection to another beloved Disney classic working in its favor, but there’s no way casual affection for an animated version of Sleeping Beauty translated to $170 million in worldwide ticket sales for a different (live-action) film all on its own.

2) The Hunger Games was not initially marketed on Jennifer Lawrence’s appeal, simply because she wasn’t a superstar when the first film was released. Sure, she had Winter’s Bone (and subsequent Oscar nomination) under her belt, but she had no proven track record as a box-office draw. The film could have starred anyone and still found success. A true star-driven film relies on the power of its star’s ability to transcend the role and bring people in to see them and the movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in The Hunger Games merely coincided with the already-proven success of the book series. It would have taken off with or without her.

Maleficent is a film that rests almost entirely on Jolie’s shoulders. It has always been her film to carry. Disney marketed Angelina Jolie over Maleficent, whereas Lionsgate initially pushed The Hunger Games over Jennifer Lawrence until their self-made circle of stardom churned Lawrence out as a megastar.

Lawrence’s career undoubtedly skyrocketed after the first Hunger Games film, but it is the franchise that created her, whereas Maleficent’s circle of success begins with–and carries on–with Angelina Jolie at the head.

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The same things we’re saying about Maleficent can be said about Salt–again, another summer blockbuster starring Jolie–because Jolie was marketed by herself as the sole reason for people to see the film. The public seems to like Jolie much better when she’s the sole draw. Even The Tourist (which wasn’t an abysmal box-office failure) faltered a bit because Jolie’s presence wasn’t compartmentalized from other aspects of the film. She’s sort of an all-or-nothing star when it comes to attracting audiences; if the focus is on her, audiences are intrigued. She doesn’t work well as an accessory.

Jolie has proven herself as a vital component, and the success of Maleficent (as well as her upcoming sophomore directorial effort) solidifies her as a star to champion as an integral part of the feminist film movement whether she’s actively going for that or not.

The fact remains that Maleficent‘s $70 million weekend shouldn’t be telling us, as audience members, anything. Female-centered narratives should be the norm and not the headlineThe people who should be learning something from Maleficent’s $70 million domestic weekend are the studio heads. After all, they’re the ones with the ability to change the landscape and make Maleficent the rule and not the exception. We, as audiences, also have a duty; let’s hold up our end of the bargain and focus on the rarity that is Maleficent, and allow it to serve as a the sturdiest foundation for a new wave of female characters we’ve seen in quite some time.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi