Things used to be so good for the man who played Will Hunting. So how come they’re going so wrong for Matt Damon?
The latest box office disappointment for the leading man is likely to be “The Adjustment Bureau,” opening from Universal on March 4. While it may not be a disaster, on the heels of “Green Zone” and “Hereafter” it is hardly the home run Damon needs to secure his place among the industry’s top stars.
The commercial decline seems unexpected for the well-regarded movie star whose action-man status seemed assured by the dominance of the "Bourne" series starting in 2002. Those three spy-thrillers took in over $950 million dollars.
The numbers, however, don't lie.
“The Green Zone” was one of Universal’s most painful misfires in 2010, taking in just $94.8 million at the global box office on a $100 million production budget.
And despite the cachet of Clint Eastwood, the $50 million “Hereafter” also stalled with audiences, pulling in $95.5 million worldwide, while the critics ignored it.
Before that, Eastwood's "Invictus" may have earned Damon an Oscar nomination, but its $122 million worldwide gross hardly marked it as a hit.
Damon's 13 non-blockbuster films over the past decade have grossed a combined $1.2 billion worldwide, roughly the same amount of money banked by the "Bourne" and "Ocean's" series.
But surprisingly, Damon turned down a chance to reprise his signature spy role when audiences were still hungry for another installment, and Universal was willing to pay.
To keep the "Bourne" film franchise in its hands, Universal had to have a sequel in production by June of 2011. But when director Paul Greengrass could not come up with an idea for a fresh thriller and passed, Damon passed too, according to individuals with knowledge of the situation.
And since then, Damon’s action movies have failed to connect at a time when the adult drama is living through a challenge with audiences.
With the exception of the $193 million worldwide take for “True Grit," the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-nominated Western in which he plays a colorful supporting role, Damon is coming off one of the roughest commercial stretches of his career.
“He’s like Angelina Jolie. If he’s a spy or in an ‘Ocean’s’ movie he’s bankable. If he’s not, then he’s a big question mark,” said a rival studio executive.
Part of the issue seems to be Damon’s decision to veer off the leading man track to do quirky, artistic projects. The actor reduced his usual quote of $15 million by at least half for the two Eastwood films and took only $500,000 to appear in "True Grit," according to an individual close to him.
"He's more concerned with being a diverse actor than being the biggest movie star in the world," the individual told TheWrap. "The idea is to broaden his range as an actor and to work with great directors. That's what will lead to longevity in a career."
Others begged to differ. “He’s had the leverage to do these passion projects, but they aren’t making any money. What we’re seeing is that audiences want him in a certain role, and he’s not giving them that,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap.
The opening of “The Adjustment Bureau” is still two weeks away, but the $62 million science-fiction thriller seems headed for an opening in the high teens. That’s nowhere close to the $27 million that even the first "Bourne Identity' debuted at in back in 2002.
Studio executives say that the film has been testing well, and Universal is banking on strong word-of-mouth to help bolster its box office.
But its opening may be closer to that of the Iraq War-themed action movie "The Green Zone," for example, a $100 million budget film that opened to $14.3 million.
“When you look at movies conceptually, for many, there is a clear ceiling on how much it can make,” Vincent Bruzzese, president of The Worldwide Motion Picture Group at Ipsos OTX , told TheWrap. “‘Green Zone’ is an example of when the negative cost already exceeded the average box-office for the genre and there is still P&A to spend.Therein lies the problem, industry-wide really; films are put in the position where even if it goes on to become the most successful movie of its kind, you still can’t break even.”
The decision to pass on "Bourne 4" may turn out to be a fateful one for Damon. “The Bourne Legacy” will go forward with screenwriter Tony Gilroy taking over the director’s chair this summer. Jason Bourne will not appear at all.
That's good for Damon, because it keeps the role open for him if and when "Bourne 5" goes into production, something that many in his camp fully expect to happen in the next year or so.
"This is the best outcome. The worst thing is if they had replaced him and made the movie with another actor playing Bourne," an individual close to Damon said. "Matt wants to do another 'Bourne' movie, he just wants to do it with Paul."
As for the future, it's murkier than Jason Bourne's memory. Damon currently has lined up some commercial fare, such as Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo" and Neil Blomkamp's "Elysium."
But there's also challenging choices including “Contagion,” an $80 million infectious-disease-themed film from Steven Sodebergh, whose last film with Damon was a major bust. Likewise “Liberace,” also with Soderbergh, may become a critical hit, but it's hard to imagine a biopic about the homosexual Las Vegas star becoming a major box office win.
"The best directors with the best parts are still calling for him," the individual close to Damon added. "When you look at his past three or four movies, there aren't many other actors who could pull off those roles. He can do drama, he can do comedy."
If all else fails, it might just be time for "Good Will Hunting 2.”