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Twilight of the Stars?

I’ve been thinking a bit of late about movie stars. Are we reaching the end of the star-driven era of Hollywood stars? What got me thinking about it was the news of Tony Scott’s upcoming Unstoppable – a movie about a runaway train starring Denzel Washington, who has been one of Scott’s most consistent collaborators in the past. I loved Denzel Washington – and I loved Crimson Tide and, to a lesser extent, Man on Fire. And yet, I have absolutely no urge to see the film. It isn’t a “must see” simply because of the talent or skill involved. And, being honest, I don’t think I’m alone. There would have been a time years ago when a name on a marque would have marked a film as “must see”. I am beginning to suspect that the era of “star power” might be slowly passing.

Am I Cloo(ney)ed into something?

Julia Roberts was queen of the silver screen during the nineties. She could do no wrong. As recently as 2002, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood (and, indeed, offered bang for the buck). Hell, my mom still adores her. And yet her recent much-anticipated return to leading lady status in Eat Pray Love came second to a big empty action movie starring a horde of “almost rans” at best, whose golden days were during the eighties – if ever.

Of course, you could argue that I’m simply out of touch. Roberts and Washington are the big name stars of an earlier generation, out of touch with modern audiences. However, I have great difficulty thinking of a modern star who allows the studios the sort of free reign in the nineties. George Clooney is a screen icon, but his presence doesn’t assure a movie’s financial success. The American will always be a fringe movie, as will any number of his smaller films like Solaris or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He’s a respected film star, but he isn’t an actor whose appeal can assure box office. The same logic applies to actors like Brad Pitt, who is a household name but whose filmography is quirky enough that he isn’t a box office draw.

Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps the only star I can think of whose name in lights will draw a huge following no matter what he does, but fame is fickle and it helps that he’s smartly chosen big name properties like Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. I am not necessarily convinced that he could do well enough without a big name property to attach himself to. Even the comedians – traditionally big name draws like Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell – seem to have seen their hold over the public’s attention loosen in recent years. Ferrell can’t turn a flop like The Land of the Lost into box office gold and Carrey couldn’t even secure I Love You, Phillip Morris a distributor in the United States until long after it had been released in Europe.

The logic is borne out by a quick look at the most financially successful films of recent years. Titanic didn’t anchor itself in star power, despite impressive indie filmographies for the two leads. Most of The Lord of the Rings cast came out with an infinitely higher profile than they had going in. Despite the success of Avatar (and high profile roles in Clash of the Titans and Terminator: Salvation), Sam Worthington is a name which will draw confused looks from most casual filmgoers. Perhaps that itself is an indication of the change of the playing field – even the biggest movies don’t necessarily make film stars these days.

That's what I call Will power...

Perhaps it’s a conscious decision on the part of the studios. Making an effort not to create stars means they don’t have to deal with egoes or salary demands. There’s a reason that Shia LaBeouf offers the best “value for money” of any actor in Hollywood, and it’s not because he costs a fortune to hire. He’ll work for cheap as needed – hell he’d probably work for food. And, being honest, even the name stars we’re familiar with are dropping their salaries – notice how Marvel have been recruiting name stars like Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson for films like Iron Man 2 or how studios rope in so many familiar actors for stuff like Valentine’s Day.

However, as fascinating as this sort of conspiracy theory is, I suspect there’s a much more banal reason for the changes in the industry. Simply put, there are too many movies being released these days – particularly from Hollywood studios. The recession has slowed things down, but the trend is generally upwards. 479 films were released in the United States in 2000, spiking up to 507 in 2005, 594 in 2006, 609 in 2007, 633 in 2008. Although there was a decline to 558 last year, I think we’ll all concede that the number of tentpoles have remained at least consistent (though I’d argue that there are more year-on-year) – the major impact of the downturn has been on the independent side of things, so it’s the small indie films that aren’t getting distributed.

That means that rather than being arranged around a dozen or so tentpole blockbusters, each with its own star like Tom Cruise, we get two dozen blockbusters being produced, with little breathing room provided for each film. In fact, it’s rare for the same film to remain at the top of the box office for more than a week at the time – the fact that it’s remarkable when a film accomplishes that is quite telling. So, with that many blockbusters, there simply aren’t enough stars to go around. It seems logical that the stars themselves get lost in the midst of all this fuss in the same way that quieter films also get lost.

That said, I still find it remarkable. I know we still talk about movie stars and actors – and I don’t think that will stop any time soon. However, I think their role was changed in the past couple of years. Rather than grounding tent poles, perhaps the function of a star is now to grant smaller films legitimacy, the way that George Clooney so frequently does, and Johnny Depp is also quite partial to do. After all, with blockbusters frequently sold by brand – being increasingly based on pre-sold properties like books or comics or even other movies – the actors themselves are (sadly) almost interchangeable to the studios.

Afterall, as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder remarks, dying stars are all to common. However, sometimes they just change from a red giant to a white dwarf. Perhaps this is just some sort of stellar realignment.

13 Responses

  1. It is a bit depressing, thinking that people actually went to, say, Transformers, for the storyline. It’s just…gah.

    • Well, no more depressing than the thought that many more went for Megan Fox. Am I the only person who doesn’t think she looks amazing?

  2. While I don’t think the days of movie stars are numbered, I do think that the two biggest influences on ticket sales these days are the directors (particularly established ones) and the original / source franchise or material (given the epic number of… lets call them… ‘modernisations’)

    I’d like to think that the wider availability of high-end equipment at much more affordable prices is meaning that anyone can bring their projects to life. Naturally, they’ll still need to be funded/distributed by large studios, however, getting your demo/pitch/shirt out there has never been easier.

  3. Interesting article. Robert Downey Jnr is having his moment in the spotlight and does seem to draw in the crowds. Leo Di Caprio also seems to attract an audience and not just a female one either. As for Julia Roberts, George Clooney, maybe it’s because they have had their moment. I think stars go in and out of fashion.

    • Di Caprio was one of the first stars I thought of too – I can’t think of any other contemporary actor who makes me look twice at a film, before I even know what it’s about. I think it’s because he has been quite selective over the past decade. I went from seeing him as a good young actor, to detesting him in the Titanic and Beach days and then back to liking him again.

    • Yep, but I don’t think – with the exception of Downey Jr – that many of the actors you’ve listed can assure a film’s success anymore. I would also have listed them as stars, but I think their power at the box office might be dwindling.

  4. I don’t think star power era is dead, it’s just that people aren’t likely to go and see a movie just because of a name is attached to a shite story (The Bounty Hunter).

    • Yep, but I don’t even think that names can get people talking about a film anymore. I’m really not too bothered about Unstoppable, for example, despite loving Denzel. Yes, even in Fallen.

  5. I definitely think smaller films are the new “blockbusters” – An accolade for a taxing role seems to be more in fashion in the 21st century, whereas in the 90s, the Hollywood elite were all the rage! I guess they see now that a challenging or “quirky” role offers more longevity than, for example, a succesful trilogy. With the exception of Cuba Gooding Jr in “Radio”, the aforementioned trend is a pretty positive step, I think 🙂 Although, I admit that I have been known to declare my nostalgia for the 90s cinema era…
    I’m not too sure about Downey – Every film I see him in a film, he’s just Robert Downey Jr, rather than bringing anything new to a character. Same mannerisms etc. It seems like he can only do one type of comedy – A bit like Johnny Depp trying his hand at Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter – They’re really interchangeable, when you think about it. I suppose Downey just isn’t one of those actors that has the ability to smother his own real-life characteristics. And those trailers of The Soloist – Surely it was some sort of parody!
    I still have hope for Sam Worthington, in spite of Clash of the Titans. Also, has anyone noticed how much he looks like Andy Whitfield from Spartacus: Blood and Sand?

    Spartacus: http://tinyurl.com/35v9wmo
    Perseus: http://tinyurl.com/32zrnlw

    • Yep, Cuba Gooding Jr. Boy how his career spiraled out of control.

      And sam Worthington just looks generically hunky to me.

  6. This topic has been mulled over to the death it seems like, but kudos for still offering a fresh take on it, Darren. I for one am rarely drawn by what a lot of people consider a big movie star (Depp, Cruise, DiCaprio), in fact, the actors I gravitate to are a bit obscure to the general public (though not to moviegoers and cinephiles). I’d say the shift is probably a good thing, I mean these ‘stars’ are way overpaid to begin with and now Hollywood finally realize they’re not worth the investment. I’d say give the extra $$ to the writers so we get more quality films.

    • Thanks Ruth, and I agree. But the problem isn’t writers. it’s executives who demand this and that. I always remember that story about Kevin Smith writing Superman, where his producer wanted a giant mechanical spider inserted for some reason.

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