Antoine Fuqua knew what it would take to get him to remake The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges' 1960 classic about a band of gunslingers. The film, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 movie The Seven Samurai, is an oft-told story about a band of mercenaries who save a town. Its genetic code can be found in everything from Star Wars to The Three Amigos. But Fuqua knew how to give the familiar yarn a fresh spin.
In an interview with NPR, Fuqua said he turned to studio executives and told them, "Personally, what would make this an event for me to really want to make this movie is to see Denzel Washington on a horse in all black as a cowboy.'"
Of course, getting Denzel to ride into town takes a big check and often a taste of the backend. But in an era of diminishing star power, Washington is one of the only major actors who is still worth his salary. His movies have racked up nearly $2.3 billion at the domestic box office, and despite entering his sixties, the actor's on a torrid streak at the box office, racking up hits such as The Equalizer, Safe House, and Flight. Add The Magnificent Seven to their ranks, after the Western picked up a sterling $35 million this weekend, confirming Washington's popular appeal.
"Denzel is always in the zone and relevant and exciting to watch," said Rory Bruer, distribution chief at Sony, the studio behind The Magnificent Seven. "I think that's true for women and men."
Nor is Washington the only actor demonstrating the powerful bond between movie stars and their fans. Tom Hanks, who, like Washington, has been a fixture on screens since the '80s, has powered Sully to nearly $100 million at the box office, largely because his name is above the title. Both films were released within weeks of each other.
Neither Washington nor Hanks has ever appeared in a superhero film. Like many actors in their generation, they didn't need to.
ComScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian argues that Washington and Hanks have earned the good will of their audience over decades by mixing in Oscar-bait like Philadelphia and Malcolm X alongside more commercial plays such as The Da Vinci Code and American Gangster. In the process, their names have been synonymous with quality. "They're on the Mount Rushmore of bankable stars," said Dergarabedian.
As evidence of their favoured statues, 27% of customers who saw The Magnificent Seven bought tickets because of Washington's presence, while 39% checked out Sully on account of Hanks, according to a comScore survey. In the case of The Equalizer, a 2014 vigilante film with Washington administering harsh justice, 51% of people saw the movie thanks to its star. Usually, fewer than 10% of people buy tickets to a movie because of its lead.
But while Washington and Hanks' endurance is impressive, it also points to the troubling fact that Hollywood has done a terrible job of cultivating the next generation of Tom's and Denzel's. Jennifer Lawrence may be the only twenty-something actress who is a reliable draw at the box office, while other promising up-and-comers, such as Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley, have been more successful at landing on magazine covers than selling movie tickets.
Chris Pratt, Washington's co-star in The Magnificent Seven, made waves in Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy, but one was a sequel to a hugely successful franchise, while the other had Marvel's marketing heft behind it. The true test of his star power will come with the Christmas release of Passengers, a sci-fi romance where he'll get an assist from Lawrence, his co-star in the film.
How things have changed. James Andrew Miller's recent talent agency expose, Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency, recounts an age where star power was everything. During the Reagan and Clinton eras, movie icons were at their zenith. It was a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger, Julia Roberts, Robert Redford, and Tom Cruise were so in demand that studios had to accede to their every whims - from private jets to trainers to trailers that spanned city blocks.
As Hollywood has grown more corporatised, it's moved away from movies that depend on the charisma of an actor to draw crowds. Instead, studios back comic-book movies and animated fare that don't rely on big names to find an audience. Those films spawn sequel after sequel, and if an actor gets too demanding, it's easy to find someone new to slip on Spider-Man's spandex or Batman's cowl. But it has also left studios without the kind of talent pool needed to headline smaller budgeted dramas and comedies that can be major sources of profit.
Neither Washington nor Hanks has ever appeared in a superhero film. Like many actors in their generation, they didn't need to. Their superpower was their charm and their greatest ability was to convey some idealised version of ourselves - more decent, attractive, and humane. No cape required.