Robert Downey Jr. Should Save Movies And Not Help Kill Them

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I like Robert Downey Jr. He’s a great actor with a tremendous screen presence and you have to admire how he pulled himself through his drug and alcohol troubles to become the highest paid actor on the planet.

He’s made more money than he’ll ever need from his Marvel alliance, scoring a sweet deal for the Iron Man and Avengers movies which means he earns more than the rest of the other actors working in the Marvel Universe. He also scored sweet paydays for his two successful Sherlock Holmes movies (a third is on the way) and comedies Due Date and Tropic Thunder also made over $100 million at the US box office. He had a small role in Jon Favreau’s indie hit Chef, but the only two films with any real weight that he has made since 2008’s Iron Man have under-performed. Last year’s The Judge scored just $47 million in the US and just $83 million globally, while 2009’s The Soloist grossed $31 million in the US and a paltry $38 million worldwide.

The failure of The Judge must have particularly hurt because it was the first movie from his production company, Team Downey, and it was positioned as a high-end piece of studio driven awards bait. It scored a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Robert Duvall at the Academy Awards but critics weren’t too kind and audiences stayed away. The Judge was a noble failure but it looks like Downey isn’t willing to risk too much, especially a big payday, by dipping his toe in the low budget pool.

Here’s a quote from Downey when he was asked if he’d like to make a low budget movie before doing another big budget studio film:

“Because they’re exhausting and sometimes they suck and then you just go, ‘What was I thinking?’ But I’m interested in doing all different kinds of movies. Sometimes the little movies are the ones that wind up taking the most out of you because they’re like, ‘Hey, man, we’re just running a couple of days behind. Do you think you can stay through your birthday and then come back on the fourth of July. And, by the way, but, like, the crew—can you pay for the craft services? And, oh, by the way, man, when we go to Sundance, it’s like, can we just sit you in a chair and you can sell this for six days in a row so that we’ll make 180 bucks when it opens in one theater? God, this is so powerful what we’re doing. What do you think of the movie? You saw it last night?’”

“I thought it’s mediocre.”

“Yeah, isn’t it the greatest?! Man, everyone’s an artist here.”

“Actually, most of you are kind of inexperienced and lame.”

Of course Downey’s sarcastic tone is evident here, but it shows that he’s now a man who doesn’t want to risk too much. He’s someone who simply wants the money and none of the hassle of creating art. Not every low budget independent film is great but by the same token, a large majority of big budget movies aren’t very good either. The actor is hedging his bets, preferring to win financially even if the final product isn’t very good. Where’s the man who made such edgy movies as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Game Six, Good Night, and Good Luck and Wonder Boys?

In contrast, George Clooney is one of the few Hollywood stars who cares about an enduring cinematic legacy. He’s willing to forgo a huge salary to ensure that financially risky projects can make it to the screen and I commend him for it. He has made commercial films like the Ocean’s 11 movies in order to balance out the edgier fare but even they were stylish affairs directed by an artist like Steven Soderbergh. Clooney cast Downey in Good Night, and Good Luck, a black and white political drama at a point when he was trying to rebuild his career. It was a $7 million film funded using the leverage of Clooney’s commercial appeal and in the end it also won huge critical acclaim and grossed over $54 million. That might not be Iron Man money but it’s an impressive return on a very modest budget. Small movies can make an impact.

He’s under no obligation, but Robert Downey Jr. should perhaps give something back and be a patron to those who helped him over the years. Reaching out to people like Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone, and James Toback to help them raise financing for films which are difficult to get funding. The old ‘one for them, one for me’ mantra is a dying concept in Hollywood but Downey Jr is in the position to help keep it alive. Big budget movies are the lifeblood of Hollywood but great cinema is what makes it so memorable. Imagine you were Robert Downey Jr. and you had the opportunity to make films that could entertain while also having the power to educate and illuminate – what would you do?