news Jonathan Majors and the Risks of Being a Bankable Movie Star (Column)

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for fame, whether you’re Donald Trump, Jonathan Majors, or Gwyneth Paltrow. (OK, maybe not Paltrow, who defeated a lawsuit, scored $1 in damages while wearing expensive clothes, and resurrected the grotesque spectacle of a live-streamed court trial from the dregs of the Depp/Heard horror show to reclaim it as camp.)

Anyone living in the spotlight faces the potential for a public reckoning and with that, collateral damage. After Majors was arrested and charged with assault and harassment, the news cycle cast immediate uncertainty on his future. Now, as various Majors projects let him go, the fallout exposes a film-business fallacy. When you build projects around movie stars, you create a liability.

Majors’ attorney claims evidence of his innocence, but his agency and publicity team dropped the actor this month. So did a number of upcoming projects, including Protagonist Pictures’ adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel “The Man in My Basement,” a series of ads for the Texas Rangers baseball team, and an unannounced Otis Redding biopic from Fifth Season. (He’s still attached to Spike Lee’s Amazon project “Da Understudy,” probably because Spike is such a fighter that he won’t let go of his star until someone forces his hand.)

Marvel hasn’t budged yet on Majors’ future as supervillain Kang the Conquerer, but it’s easy to understand why: Disney has time and options — its next project with Majors hasn’t set a clear production schedule, and it won’t be a huge legacy problem if Season 2 of “Loki” simply comes out with an air of awkwardness around it. From there, the studio has enough money to sort out the question of whether it decides to barrel forward or recast the character with a multiverse twist.

In contrast, Majors’ drama poses a serious challenge for Searchlight, which acquired 2023 Sundance hit “Magazine Dreams” after a prolonged bidding war in the hopes of mounting a Best Actor campaign. This disturbing thriller is built around Majors’ commanding performance as a lonely and unstable bodybuilder — and his rising currency in popular culture as the new villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While 21st-century star power remains a dubious conceit outside Tom Cruise — “Fast and Furious” movies sell cars more than people, the “Avatar” movies sell VFX — it still holds tyranny over the mid-budget marketplace. Movies produced for under $10 million can rise or fall on the basis of an individual’s involvement. (“Magazine Dreams” cost around $7 million.) No matter how staggering the performance, a business model based around the actions and reputation of one person means greater risk.

Searchlight is one of the few studio divisions still vested in the ever-complicated equation of catapulting challenging movies into wide release, and some have suggested that the Majors scandal creates a miserable sense of deja vu. Seven years ago, the company endured “The Birth of a Nation” after buying it for the highest price tag in Sundance history only to witness director Nate Parker face the revelation of rape charges that dated back to his days at Penn State.

That scandal predated the studio’s sale to Disney, which has a much lower tolerance for public screw-ups — especially on artsy projects less relevant to the studio’s bottom line. A more accurate comparison to this situation is an incident from last year: When Bill Murray’s bad behavior shut down production of the Searchlight-produced “Being Mortal” midway through, Disney killed the project rather than letting director Aziz Ansari recast the role. Now, as Searchlight’s future within the wider Disney universe remains an open question, the possibility that “Magazine Dreams” will go straight to Hulu becomes greater each day.

Sources tell me that Searchlight continues to take a wait-and-see approach on this; no one wants to pull the trigger until they learn more about the allegations. But the Hulu release is an inevitable outcome in part because — irony of ironies — “Magazine Dreams” will probably do well on streaming, and perhaps even better now due to the scandal surrounding it.

While that’s still an unfortunate outcome for Searchlight, if you’re looking for somewhere to place your sympathies, consider director Elijah Bynum. “Magazine Dreams” is his second film, a daring and powerful “Taxi Driver” riff that doesn’t shy from making its audience squirm. At Sundance, it was among the few titles willing to feel a little dangerous and dare to fail in the process.

If the movie had cast an unknown aspiring bodybuilder, “Magazine Dreams” would likely still succeed as a powerful, immersive meditation on the perilous extremes of modern-day masculinity and standards of beauty than no mere mortal can obtain. But “Magazine Dreams” never would have happened with an unknown aspiring bodybuilder. “This movie wasn’t getting made without a movie star in it,” Bynum told me in January at Sundance. “And just any movie, but a true, committed actor. We knew that was our only chance.”

Bynum, a former CAA assistant whose first feature “Hot Summer Nights” was one of the last A24 pickups under its now-defunct DirecTV deal, had the industry savvy to build his edgy screenplay around Majors’ commitment. “The wish list was just him,” Bynum told me, citing everything from Majors’ sensitive turn in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” to Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” “It didn’t take much to sell me. You see him and right away there’s an intensity and a vulnerability at the same time. He has a really interesting face, a very cinematic face. You hold him in closeup and you don’t have to do much more than that. You can feel what he’s thinking.”

If you’ve seen Majors in any of these films, or even in the mess of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania,” you know Bynum is right. Majors bathes in nuance and evades the trappings of hyperbole — but when a film’s existence hangs on his singular skill, that’s a risk no E&O policy can touch.

In fact, it was at the Sundance party for “Magazine Dreams” when an executive from another production company lamented to me the problem with building projects around a single actor. When that happens, they often demand a producing credit — and, knowing that the entire enterprise rests on them, they sometimes want to have say over the casting process as well. Even director-oriented actors can fancy themselves an auteur.

A distributor who passed on “Magazine Dreams” texted me a few weeks ago to note that Majors creates a bigger conversation about how movies get financed and what gives them the perception of value. And a few days ago, a major filmmaker told me that he felt the only thing that made executives perk up in a pitch meeting was a famous name in the cast — unless he was pitching a horror movie.

So much work is now valued on the basis of whether or not one established actor is attached, not whether or not the movie has potential to be good. The price tag on “Magazine Dreams” was high, along with demands for its awards campaign and a major theatrical release, all of which ties back to Majors’ reputation. That model doesn’t allow room for individual liability.


“Fair Play”

The truth is while a single actor can get a film made, or even sold, they guarantee very little in ROI. (The one exception: Nicolas Cage, whose VOD currency means his movies are easily greenlit for low-seven figures budgets.). It’s more reliable to look at genre, timeliness, or — if you’re very lucky — producers who bring other resources to the table. Rian Johnson’s role as a producer on another Sundance hit, “Fair Play,” almost certainly helped it score a $20 million with Netflix for the $10 million thriller.

Now, let’s hope Johnson — one of the few earnest, nice-guy filmmaker types to achieve big-time Hollywood success in recent years — maintains his reputation. But if were to falter for some awful reason, “Fair Play” could still thrive. With “Magazine Dreams,” the quandary goes much deeper and there’s no easy way out.

Regardless, I suggest people see this movie when they can — it’s a gripping conversation-starter — and that the dialogue it creates goes well beyond the private dramas off-screen. Cinema needs more than just pretty faces to survive its uncertain future.

As usual, I welcome feedback to this week’s column:

Check out earlier columns here.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the pratfalls of making new movies in black-and-white. Here’s one letter I received.

“The article is an overly simplistic look at what is and is not selling. Currently 55% of Sundance titles have yet to secure a domestic distribution deal. That includes 78% of NEXT titles and 83% of World Dramatic titles. So the two films you cited (“Fremont” and “Mami Wata”) are far from outliers. … More importantly you fail to note that the only two NEXT films to secure distribution thus far are BOTH black and white (“Divinity” and “Kokomo City”)… To be fair, there are multiple things working against black and white films, but your article comes from a pre-determined opinion and omits any information that would undermine your thesis.”

—B. Glick, president, GQue Films