As the dominant force in late-night television, Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" was an essential stop for movie stars flogging their upcoming films. But Monday marked the dawn of a new era for "Tonight," one with Jimmy Fallon at the reins, raising the question of whether the new host will succeed in drawing the same A-list talent as his predecessor.
Like Leno, Fallon has a reputation as something of a softball interviewer, which should suit the Hollywood PR machine just fine. Unlike Leno, however, Fallon isn't a late-night institution, at least not yet, and the simple fact that he's not Leno could mean he'll have to work a bit to land the major movie stars — particularly amid all the competition he now faces from Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and others. (When Leno took the helm in 1992, the late-night field was of course much thinner.)
How frequently Hollywood's big names pop up on Fallon's "Tonight Show" could come down to whether he can duplicate Leno's ratings success. An average of 11.3-million total viewers tuned in to the premiere Monday, which doesn't match the 14.6 million who watched Leno's last episode but does beat out Conan O'Brien's 2009 "Tonight Show" premiere (9.2 million). Bigger numbers, in turn, are of course more likely to help a studio open a film.
Fallon's guest schedule for his first week is a bit light on big-screen talent, in part because this time of year tends to be a somewhat fallow period for movie releases.
Fallon's first guest was none other than Will Smith, one of the most popular actors on the planet and the star of the upcoming romantic drama "Focus." However, Smith didn't talk up his movie projects, instead chatting with Fallon about snowboarding, Olympic curling and skydiving. His most memorable moment on the show was donning baggy overalls and a printed T-shirt alongside Fallon to demonstrate "The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing."
Fallon's other guests this week will include comedian Jerry Seinfeld, comic actress Kristen Wiig, "American Hustle" star Bradley Cooper, First Lady Michelle Obama, funnyman Will Ferrell and singer-actor Justin Timberlake.
Of those guests, Cooper is perhaps the only conventional movie star: He is currently contending for a supporting actor Oscar for his role in "American Hustle" and has a few other high-profile movies in the works, including the Marvel superhero flick "Guardians of the Galaxy" in which he voices Rocket Raccoon, and a yet untitled film written and directed by Cameron Crowe.
Ferrell, meanwhile, voices the evil Lord Business in the animated hit "The Lego Movie," but he's equally at home generating laughs on the small screen and online, as Fallon is.
Wiig has a dramatic film coming up in summer, "The Skeleton Twins," but like Ferrell, the "Saturday Night Live" alum is best known for her comedy. Fans of Fallon's "Late Show" will recall the time she came on the show dressed very unconvincingly as Michael Jordan. (Wiig and Ferrell also have the comedy-drama "Welcome to Me" in the pipeline, but it's a ways off and likely won't get mentioned.)
Next week, Fallon's guest list is heavier on big-screen talent, with Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, Denzel Washington and Cameron Diaz all in the mix.
The greater test of how fully A-list stars are willing to embrace Fallon's "Tonight Show" may come as the crop of big-budget spring and summer films approaches — particularly starting in April, which will see the release of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (April 4) and "Transcendence" (April 18).