Johnny Depp is one of the more unique stars in Hollywood.
Depp has demonstrated offbeat tastes in roles and movies. Over the years he’s seemed more inclined to work on projects or with directors he found interesting, regardless of commercial prospects.
For that reason, Depp, while a highly respected actor, can have a rather dodgy track record at the box office. He certainly has his share of hits and has earned three Oscar nominations. But there’s a perception of him as a “streaky’ actor, prone to periods of underperforming star vehicles. Whether or not Depp’s name is enough to open a movie to decent returns is a perpetual conundrum.
Early reviews of Depp’s role as infamous mobster Whitey Bulger in the upcoming Black Mass is spurring Oscar talk. If Depp lands a nomination early next year, it will be his first in eight years. That’s giving rise to “comeback” chatter. Depp has had some high profile cinematic misfires over the past few years, so it’s not hard to see how a perception could arise that Depp has something to prove.
An emerging counter-view is that Depp is in no need of a comeback. That even in poor movies, he still immerses himself in roles and gives a committed performance.
That’s a difficult position to defend. Depp is extremely skilled and talented. But he also has a certain fondness for going over the top and playing really broadly when in “entertainment” vehicles (as opposed to films one might view as “art”). It’s hard to label such excesses part of a successful performance.
So which is accurate? Is Depp in “Celebrity Jail” and in need of atonement? Has he been unfairly maligned? Has his recent output been so poor that he’s in need of a comeback?
As ever, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Let’s take a look at Depp’s output since his last Oscar nomination, for Sweeney Todd in 2008. For these purposes, we look only at his lead or supporting film roles (excluding movie or TV cameos and documentary work). That comprises some 14 roles over the course of eight years, leading up to the imminent Black Mass.
Below are the Rotten Tomatoes scores (aggregating critical reviews), plus box office performance (provided by Box Office Mojo) for Depp’s post-Sweeney work. The “domestic gross” is each movie’s performance in North America; the “worldwide” figure represents domestic grosses plus international receipts.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); supporting role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64 $7.6 million domestic gross, $54.1 million worldwide, budget: $30 million
Public Enemies (2009); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 68 $97.1 million domestic gross, $214.1 million worldwide, budget: $100 million
Alice in Wonderland (2010); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51% $334.1 million domestic gross, $1,025.4 million worldwide, budget: $200 million
The Tourist (2010); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 20% $67.6 million domestic gross, $278.3 million worldwide, budget: $100 million
Rango (2011); lead role (voice only); animated Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87% $123.4 million domestic gross, $245.7 million worldwide, budget: $135 million
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 37% $241 million domestic gross, $1,045.7 worldwide, budget: $250 million
The Rum Diary (2011); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56% $13.1 million domestic gross, $23.9 million worldwide, budget: $45 million
Dark Shadows (2012); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 37% $79.7 million domestic gross, $245.5 million worldwide, budget: $150 million
The Lone Ranger (2013); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 31% $89.3 million domestic gross, $260.5 million worldwide, budget: $215 million
Lucky Them (2013); supporting role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75% $48,421 domestic gross
Transcendence (2014); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 19% $23 million domestic gross, $103 million worldwide, budget: $100 million
Tusk (2014); supporting role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39% $1.8 million domestic gross
Into the Woods (2014); supporting role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71% $128 million domestic gross, $212.9 million worldwide, $50 million budget
Mortdecai (2015); lead role Rotten Tomatoes Score: 12% $7.6 million domestic gross, $30.4 million worldwide, budget: $60 million
A Rotten Tomatoes score of 60% or higher is considered “fresh,” indicative of a movie with positive critical consensus. That doesn’t parse individual performances in a film, but provides a general view of a production’s quality.
In addition to the production budget (a figure often made available to the public), films incur numerous other expenses (usually not publicly released) that have to be recouped before they start turning a profit. Distribution and promotion expenses can run as high as some films’ budgets, especially for big “tentpole” movies. That means that several movies above, though they recouped their production budgets, failed to turn a profit.
Since Sweeney Todd, Depp has been in some movies that have made money and some that were well received by critics. He’s rarely been in movies that managed both at the same time.
Another troubling trend for Depp is his dependence on foreign revenues. Several of his movies either broke even or turned a profit only because international grosses buoyed underperforming, or even poor, domestic results. Movies like Public Enemies, Rango and The Tourist failed to recoup even their production budgets at the North American box office. That’s not a phenomenon unique to Depp. More and more, big budget movies rely on foreign ticket sales to achieve overall profitability. But failure to at least recoup production expenses during the domestic run is a worrying trend.
Depp’s two biggest financial successes weren’t necessarily dependent on his name or performance. Depp had received acclaim for his first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (even earning an Oscar nomination). But his shtick got staler with each sequel. On Stranger Tides had the lowest domestic receipts of the series, failing to make up its budget. Only superior international performance made it a success.
As for Alice in Wonderland, live action fairy tale movies have tended to perform quite well with audiences. Depp’s performance and the movie overall received mixed reviews, but it’s his only unqualified blockbuster of the past eight years.
Also successful was last year’s Into the Woods, where Depp played a supporting role. Again, he wasn’t the main attraction (the movie was adapted from a Broadway hit based on classic fairy tales). The film’s more modest budget allowed it to turn a profit with just its North American run, meaning the foreign returns were all gravy. And it’s the rare movie for Depp of the last few years that managed to also succeed with critics.
On the negative side, The Rum Diary, Transcendence and Mortdecai were all big misses. Rum at least had some critical support, but the other two were savaged. All of them were prominently “Johnny Depp movies,” so that’s not good for him. And while Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger recouped production budgets, each still produced big losses for their studios.
So, does Depp need a comeback? His star status could certainly stand a hit movie that’s both commercially and critically successful and that features him as a lead. An Oscar nomination would also be a nice boost for his visibility. Commercially, he has upcoming Pirates and Alice sequels that at least are likely to make money, even if critics savage them. An Oscar nod for Black Mass could re-inforce his rep ahead of those likely bruising outings.
In the end the “Johnny Depp Slump” narrative seems more rooted in perception, flamed by the massive failure of Mortdecai still fresh in commenters’ minds. But in Hollywood, perception often trumps reality, so if Black Mass is the success many are expecting, it will be well-timed for the actor.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on September 9, 2015.