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The gang's all here -- minus the audience

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 12:22 PM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
"New Year's Eve" could cause studios to rethink the holiday-ensemble formula that worked so well for "Valentine's Day" in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "New Year's Eve" opens with a meager $13.7 million
  • Its predecessor, "Valentine's Day" raked in $56 million its opening weekend in 2010
  • Casting director: Marquee loading is probably not to blame for the flick's performance

(CNN) -- Featuring more than five Oscar-nominated actors, "New Year's Eve" boasts a star-studded cast. But what happens when there seems to be more people on screen than there are in theaters?

Opening with a meager $13.7 million, "New Year's Eve" could cause studios to rethink the holiday-ensemble formula that worked so well for "Valentine's Day" in 2010.

In other words, don't expect to see "Labor Day" in theaters anytime soon, Variety managing editor Stuart Levine joked.

But the idea of "marquee loading," as casting director David Rubin calls it, probably isn't to blame for "New Year's Eve's" box office face plant.

"Marquee names represent somewhat of an insurance policy for the film's investors," said Rubin, who has cast ensemble films like "Hairspray" and "Romeo + Juliet." "No ensemble cast is successful past opening weekend unless the actors are well-chosen for their characters."

The focus of the film needs to be on storytelling, added Rubin, noting he hasn't seen "New Year's Eve." "If casting large stars distracts from the telling of the story, it's a bad idea."

Ramin Setoodeh, a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, agreed. It seemed like actors were cast for celebrity rather than parts, he said.

Some parts were just lazy, Setoodeh said, referencing the connection between Zac Efron and Sarah Jessica Parker's characters. The pair played siblings in the film, despite their significant age difference.

Appealing to different demographics with casting -- such as the way "New Year's Eve" featured Robert De Niro in addition to "Glee's" Lea Michele -- is a common strategy, Rubin said. But hitting different audiences should be a bonus, not a focus.

"It would be disingenuous of me to say we didn't have an eye toward hitting certain demographics of audiences (when casting 'Hairspray')," he said. "But if we made choices purely based on demographics, without regard to storytelling, we'd have a less successful film."

"If it's only a gimmick, its success is short lived," Rubin said, adding, that if it's done with thought, it's a marketing bonus.

The short stories might also have had a hand in "New Year's Eve" finishing its opening weekend more than $35 million short of its budget.

"Because of the division of screen time, you may end up giving none of (the actors) enough of a chance to register in their stories," Rubin said.

Since the film's release, media outlets have dwelled on "New Year's Eve's" unrealistic plot points, from Ashton Kutcher's character sneaking into a secured space in Times Square to Katherine Heigl as a big-time caterer with poor knife skills.

"Valentine's Day" might not have garnered critical acclaim, but it was at least likeable and charming, Setoodeh said.

The romantic comedy, which hit theaters in February, raked in $56 million its opening weekend.

But to be fair, "Valentine's Day" opened the weekend of February 14, a day when couples and singles alike flock to the movie theater.

"It's hard to get people excited about a movie about New Year's," Setoodeh said.

However, other ensemble romantic comedies that didn't open on a holiday weekend, like 2003's "Love Actually" and 2009's "He's Just Not That Into You," were still able to benefit from ensemble casts.

It will be interesting to see how "What to Expect When You're Expecting," another flick with an all-star roster, performs when it hits theaters in May.

Disappointing numbers aside, "New Year's Eve" did manage to edge out its competition. Jonah Hill's "The Sitter" finished the weekend with a mere $10 million. Still, winning at the box office doesn't carry as much weight when a weekend only garners $73.2 million domestically, the worst total of 2011, Entertainment Weekly noted.

Before the box office numbers rolled in, Funny or Die put out a trailer for "Christmas Day," a parody of ensemble films like "New Year's Eve." Slides reading, "76 characters ... 41 plotlines ... trying to find love" flash between clips from various romantic comedies -- like "Serendipity" and "Love Happens." The trailer closes with the tagline, "Small plots. Big celebrities."

It's not enough to feature a bunch of celebrities on a movie poster, Levine said. The story has to be good for a movie to do well in the long term.

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