When he first ascended to movie stardom, Will Smith was known as the King of the 4th of July, after having starred in back-to-back hits that opened on that day. If you add Wild Wild West, that’s three in four years that opened on the same exact weekend of the calendar. Of Leonardo DiCaprio’s past fourteen outings, ten were released in the fourth quarter (and two were going to be released in the fourth quarter but got pushed back). Of course, that trend is not consciously planned by the actors, but it exists because of the types of films they choose to make. Smith prefers gargantuan studio efforts that want to clean up when kids are out of school; DiCaprio gravitates toward prestige pictures positioned for awards season.
Even a nascent moviegoer quickly figures out that parts of the year have different identities. The calendar used to be in quarters, but now there are only three seasons: May to August is summer blockbusters, September to December is Oscar time, and January to April is…movies that don’t fit anywhere else. It’s territory for studios to dump product that doesn’t fit into those other two boxes, for modest budgets and genre fare. (If you’re me, it’s time to stay at home and catch up on older films.) Audiences and studios all knew this was the way it worked. Until 2008.
In 2008 Liam Neeson began his reign as the King of the First Trimester, which has even less of a ring to it than King of the 4th of July. In quick succession, he starred in Taken, Unknown, and The Grey—all films that cast him as a laconic, damaged, grizzled hunk of dad-strength. All of the films were plot-heavy potboilers with few women, high stakes, and intermittent badass action. Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of the December holdovers that still occupy screens in January. Beginning Friday, if The Wolf of Wall Street is too long for you, you’re in luck: Liam Neeson will be running around a plane for 106 minutes in Non-Stop.
Characters who seem trustworthy but then double-cross Liam Neeson’s character? Probably. People on the plane who mistakenly think Liam Neeson’s character is the terrorist? Probably. Some human anchor waiting for Liam Neeson’s character back home? Probably. Liam Neeson’s character having the non-name of BILL MARKS? Definitely. A little bit of close-quarters fisticuffs? Sure, but the film is rated PG-13, so even with that, you know what to expect.
Which is the point. January and February studio releases are meant to keep the average person warm. And now that there’s a formula to be exploited, others have stepped up to fill the void. Neeson was the undisputed King of the First Trimester, but now Mark Wahlberg has thrown his tight t-shirt into the ring.
Wahlberg used to radiate an agitated energy on-screen. He was even able to channel it into comedy through sheer will, since he seems like an unfunny person in real life. These days, however, largely functioning as a producer, he seems like a barometer for public cynicism within a field of entertainment. When was our trust in HBO’s creative decisions really tested? When he produced Entourage. When was even HBO’s own prestige leveraged against itself? When he produced Boardwalk Empire. When did the reality TV subgenre of owning a restaurant seem too scripted for its own good? When he produced Wahlburgers. And when did January try to have it both ways? When he produced Lone Survivor.
Two years in a row, Producer Wahlberg carved out Actor Wahlberg’s own January mold, starring in Contraband and Broken City as humorless protagonists with troubled but unspecific pasts who get roped into unsavory business. The films are rough, ugly, convoluted, and cheap-looking, even if they’re populated with A- names who need to eat. (Pray for Ben Foster.) Shooting in Louisiana for tax credits, Wahlberg seemed to have roped off his own corner of the First Trimester, giving his audience a major movie star during a time when they didn’t expect it.
Wahlberg is at least as much of a producer as he is an actor now. In the first paragraph I mentioned that the release date of a movie is not necessarily part of an actor’s plan, but I think it is in Wahlberg’s case.* There should be a new word for the type of movie star he is. Whereas most actors jump behind the camera to push forward passion projects, Wahlberg seems to act in films that interest him creatively and produce to keep his star lit. It’s a bizarre brand of auteurism that finds the creativity in the commerce instead of the art.
It’s because of that outlook that he tried to get cute with the January model. Last month, after a brief awards season qualifying run, Wahlberg went wide with a bigger budget production that tried to be meaningful in the First Trimester, which I thought we had agreed was not allowed. It’s true that the boxes Lone Survivor checked were just as cynical as his other January offerings: Pro-military, based on a true story, outcome of the narrative safely given away in the title. But he used a director more real than Baltasar Kormakur this time. The actors he corralled around him are closer to A list than A-. (Although, for real, pray for Ben Foster.) And more importantly, the film is one of the biggest hits of his career, standing at $121 million as of today. Had Philomena not gained some steam, we could be looking at the first First Trimester Best Picture nominee.
So what does this mean? Probably that I know a lot less about the marketplace than Mark Wahlberg. Maybe it proves that the second any kind of value advantage is discovered in Hollywood, it gets exploited until it transforms into something else. What it probably means is that, if Wahlberg wants all of the money and all of the credibility, he has to play the villain in Taken 3. I don’t make the rules, Mark.
*- Also, Smith and DiCaprio produce most of their own pictures now. I probably underplayed that in the introduction.