The announcement by Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) that it signed Eddie Murphy to a three-picture deal with its Amazon Studios subsidiary gives the Emmy-winning funnyman a new turn in the spotlight.
But in view of Murphy’s erratic track record over the past two decades — with highs including his Oscar-nominated role in “Dreamgirls” and lows involving a multitude of box office flops — is Amazon getting its money’s worth with Murphy?
To determine the viability of this deal, Benzinga polled several prominent film writers who have tracked both Murphy’s career and the rise of the streaming industry. The consensus, it appears, is a very cautious yes.
A Shaky Star: Murphy first gained audience attention during his 1980-1984 stint on “Saturday Night Live,” with many cultural critics singling him out as the primary reason the show was able to carry forward after the departure of its original cast and founding executive producer Lorne Michaels. He established himself as a film star with his first big screen role in 1982’s “48 Hrs.”
While it seemed that Murphy could do no wrong at the box office in the 1980s, his career began to hit potholes in the 1990s when many of his films either made mild profits or tanked upon arrival.
Although Murphy gained younger fans and refueled his box office cred in family-friendly films including the “Shrek” and “Dr. Dolittle” franchises and “Daddy Day Care,” Murphy also racked up a number a large number of unmistakable flops including “Show Time,” “I Spy,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Meet Dave,” “Imagine That” and “Mr. Church” — the latter film, distributed in U.S. theaters in 2016 by the independent Cinelou Releasing, brought in less than $700,000 at the box office.
More recently, Murphy appeared to regain his footing via the streaming world. His 2019 Rudy Ray Moore biopic “My Name is Dolemite” was a popular Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) title while “Coming 2 America,” which was originally planned as a 2020 theatrical release from ViacomCBS’ (NASDAQ:VIAC) Paramount Pictures, instead went to Amazon Prime where it scored the service’s first-ever win on Nielsen’s weekly U.S. streaming chart in early March.
Murphy is currently working with Netflix on “Beverly Hill Cop 4” and an untitled comedy co-starring Jonah Hill.
A Solid Future? According to several film experts queried by Benzinga, Murphy is in the right place at the right time. Mike Sargent, the cultural critic with the “PBS NewsHour” and co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle, theorized that Murphy will gain a renewed appeal due to audience nostalgia.
“We, as a culture, always celebrate 20 years earlier,” he explained. “In the 70s, we had all these shows about the 50s like ‘Happy Days’; in the 90s, we had ‘The Wonder Years’ about the 70s. With all those 80s and 90s movies he made, I think people would love to see him come back right now.”
Sargent, who is also chief film critic at WBAI-FM in New York City, also observed that streaming services have been more open to presenting productions by and about diverse demographics.
“There’s never been a better time for stories are created by people of color,” he said.
Mike White, host and producer of “The Projection Booth” podcast, believes Murphy remains a popular star despite his excess of unsuccessful films.
“I think he’s still got some money in him,” he said. “With roles like Rudy Ray Moore and other more serio-comic stuff, I think he's great — though I wish he’d do more stuff like ‘Bowfinger’ than the broader comedy.”
“I think it's Amazon's way of banking on name recognition and the built-in fan base of Eddie Murphy much in the way Netflix has invested in Adam Sandler," said Felix Vasquez Jr., editor and publisher for Cinema-Crazed.com. “The pair haven't had much success in film at all over the years, both critically and commercially, but their films still do stream very well based on reports from the companies.”
“From Murphy’s perspective, he won’t have to worry about filling theaters the way he once did,” said Gene Seymour, cultural critic and former film reviewer at Newsday. “Once this fact kicks in, he can relax and do more stuff like ‘Dolemite’ or even ‘Bowfinger.’
“As for Amazon, they get a legacy star who can get attention even for making a sequel nobody asked for.”
Is Something Missing? However, some film experts are wondering if the Murphy-Amazon relationship will result in satisfying works.
“It really depends on how they decide to handle it,” stated Jerry Dean Roberts, writer with ArmchairCinema.com. “Murphy is a good actor, but they need to get over the timidity of having him bask in retreads. He needs to get away from ‘Coming to America’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and try new things, as Netflix did with ‘My Name is Dolemite.’
“He needs to find a third phase in his career — offer something new, rather than give in to the easy-money path of wading in nostalgia.”
David Cornelius, a filmmaker and former eFilmCritic.com writer and member of the Online Film Critics Society’s Governing Committee, pointed to the large amounts of money being spent by the streaming services, which he believed would spare Murphy from any pressure of making surefire hits.
“It's weird — unlike studios depending on one or two tentpoles to fuel their year, a subscription model spreads around the hits and misses so that ‘will this be a hit?’ doesn’t really have the same meaning these days,” he said.
But Joe Meyers, former Connecticut Post film critic and director of programming for Focus on French Film, warned that even deep-pocketed streaming services can get second thoughts if their big-name talent creates problems for them, especially with talent like Murphy who has a history of off-screen difficult behavior.
“Amazon had a disastrous relationship with Woody Allen, where they apparently spend large sums of money ‘Crisis in Six Scenes’ and had an exclusive theatrical contract with him which they had to get out,” he said, the latter a reference to “A Rainy Day in New York,” which Amazon refused to put in U.S. theaters when Allen became the focus of the #MeToo movement.
“Who knows what Woody Allen settlement was, but that was a disaster. So, I think there can be problems with exclusive contracts.”
Photo: Eddie Murphy in "Coming 2 America," courtesy of Amazon.