From a brand perspective, actor Taylor Kitsch has had an unfortunate 2012. With the movie industry dealing with a rocky past few years, Hollywood has had to adjust its strategy, moving to a familiar but relatively new spending plan. With A-list stars demanding huge salaries or major backend deals with little assurance that their popularity will translate into box-office gold, Tinseltown has looked inward, almost akin to the old studio system, in an attempt to cultivate its own fresh (less-expensive) would-be stars.
Cue: the 31-year-old Taylor Kitsch, thus far known to the populace as a hunky and brooding footballer on "Friday Night Lights." One of many young actors groomed to evolve into the mantle of A-list star (along with folks like Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, etc.), Kitsch has found himself in the unenviable position of leading untested tentpoles and would-be franchises as what amounts to essentially being an unknown. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and everyone needs to start somewhere, but the studios' essentially collective bet on the actor has yet to pay off (to say the least).
While this isn't Kitsch's fault, the fact remains that he has led two films that are likely neck and neck in achieving the dubious distinction of being 2012's biggest bombs. Kitsch has essentially had his Ryan Reynolds year (minus a divorce, but plus an extra, much more expensive turkey). Both Disney's "John Carter," and Universal's "Battleship" have been costly productions (upwards of $250 million), and while both pictures have grossed figures at least 35% higher, once you do the Hollywood math, both pictures are deeply in the red (earlier this year Disney reported taking a $200 million dollar bath on "John Carter" despite grossing $350 million worldwide).
It's a pretty brutal start for a young actor whose previous big-screen experience consists mostly of a supporting role in "Snakes On A Plane" and a cameo in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Reynolds at least had a string of leading roles behind him before last year's "Green Lantern" and "The Change Up" flopped, but Kitsch is now 0/2 on the public referendum on his stardom, and needs something to pull him out of that nosedive if his career isn't to be filed with the much-hyped-back-in-the-day likes of Skeet Ulrich and Gretchen Mol.
He must certainly hope that that something comes in the form of this week's "Savages," a crime thriller helmed by Oliver Stone, which Kitsch toplines alongside Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively. It's undoubtedly a different beast than "John Carter" and "Battleship" — an ensemble, non-tentpole picture that doesn't have the same expectations or budget attached to it. But nevertheless, it's going to be Kitsch's last 2012 attempt to save face, with perception often being the more important factor over reality. It's not that it needs to be a monster hit. Opening against "The Amazing Spider-Man" means that it's not expected to bring bank, but if it can manage some legs — it is, after all, one of the few films of the summer targeted to a slightly older audience — it'll be perceived as something of a sleeper. And while that would be far from proof that Kitsch can be a megastar, given the ensemble nature of the film, it'd put him at least partly in the right direction.
Perhaps more important would be critical reaction. Both his films so far this year picked up predominately negative reviews, and again, while few targeted Kitsch as much as the filmmakers — he was reasonably charismatic, if miscast, in both — something with more positive word would help the perception that he's simply been unlucky, rather than a kind of cinematic albatross. Reviews out there already for "Savages" have been decent, if not raves, with both trades describing it as a return to form for Stone, and praise for Kitsch's turn has been floating around. Playlist team members saw the film last night and…may disagree with some of this. But in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it's the consensus that's really more important as far as the star's concerned.We suspect the film will be fairly well-received, and do moderate-to-disappointing box office, without setting the world on fire; enough to not be a third disaster in a row, but probably not enough to restore confidence in Kitsch completely. So the question is, what's his next play?
After Ryan Reynolds' disastrous 2011 summer, the actor went to ground somewhat. "Safe House" was already in the can (and thankfully proved to be a big hit), and shooting was already pretty much underway on "R.I.P.D." But since then, the actor's been quiet, with only animated gigs on "The Croods" and "Turbo" (and **spoiler** a self-deprecating cameo in "Ted," clearly from the Tom Cruise/"Tropic Thunder" school of rehabilitation **end spoiler**) actually in production. He has signed on to some other gigs, including the indie drama "Big Eyes," and he's been rumored for the "Highlander" remake (although it's worth noting he's not yet confirmed for that movie). But it's clear that the bruising performance of last year's films made Reynolds and his management take stock a bit.
Kitsch would be well advised to do the same. The actor only has one film on his slate at present, reuniting with "Battleship" director Peter Berg on another military-themed project, the Afghanistan-set "Lone Survivor." The film is shooting this fall, and will see the actor in a more comfortable second-fiddle role to proven draw Mark Wahlberg. We suspect that there's a degree to which Kitsch, like Jude Law and Colin Farrell before him, is a character actor being forced into leading man roles, and may find he's having more fun if, like them, he starts taking more interesting supporting parts. The relatively healthy international box office for his two films suggests he has some value in terms of pre-sales, so he could still be an asset to independent producers putting together a package.
Kitsch was also linked to fan-favorite role Finnick Odair in "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire," and while it was swiftly denied by all involved, including the actor, it might have been a smart move to pursue it; walking into a pre-made franchise with the pressure off is probably preferable to trying to launch a whole franchise on your own shoulders. But the better template Kitsch should try to follow is that of Mr. Channing Tatum.
A year ago, Tatum was seen as a wooden himbo, whose blockbuster attempts with "G.I. Joe" and "The Eagle" had been pretty unsuccessful. But now, Tatum has had three (wildly different) films opening above $35 million in five months, has won critical acclaim, and is pretty much Hollywood's hottest new star. And in part, he did it by taking his destiny into his own hands, working with smart filmmakers and developing his own projects, while not neglecting the core of his audience by making a film like "The Vow."
He's had as good a year as Kitsch had a bad one, but serves as a demonstration that the "Battleship" star is far from down and out yet, and taking a few hints from the Tatum playbook wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. Find a cameo or an expectations-defying role in some Apatow-type comedy. Chase the next Nicholas Sparks adaptation, the best possible way to establish a fanbase among young women (because Kitsch's biggest problem right now is that he doesn't really have a fanbase, other than "Friday Night Lights" fans out there). Hook up with some smart filmmakers and take a small, memorable role. If he follows some of those steps, Kitsch may be around for plenty of time to come.