Fifty! Woo! Fifty whole episodes! Yay! We’re really chugging along, we are! Rock! Every last episode was great! Maybe!
The subject this week is the waning power of movie stars. On the latest episode, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I mused ever so briefly on how certain film projects are not getting made, despite the interest of a recognizable and famously lucrative movie star. We talked about how certain movies tend to open strongly these days without the presence of a big movie star. Bibbs brought up Robert Pattinson, a good-looking British actor who plays a vampire of some kind. He has a point. People aren’t paying money to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 multiple times in order to see Mr. Pattinson or Kristen Stewart. They want to see the characters. An equally suitable actor could have been cast as Edward Cullen, I feel, and the level of audience passion would be identical.
The same could be said of the Harry Potter movies. All eight of them were immensely popular (heck, even a stodgy old man like me saw all eight in the theaters), and the most recent chapter remains the highest grossing film of 2011. And while people do have a fondness for the three lead actors in the series, it wasn’t their presence, necessarily, that attracted so many viewers. It was the fact that the books had a built-in cult, and they wanted to see the events from the books dramatized on screen. In a way, the actors were entirely incidental. We wouldn’t have stood by bad performances, but to serve the material (in the case of Harry Potter and Twilight) you only needed average and passable performances. Indeed, a great performance may have even served against the material; if a great actor brings something new to the role, you run the risk of changing the character from their literary version. Fans would not have stood for it. Imagine if Harry were weepy, or if Edward Cullen were cheerful, or if Bella Swan had personality. The fans would have hated it.
But it seems that the “big hit” movies these days are less about the old-guard thinking of matinee idols, and more about adapting familiar characters. Take a look at the recent spate of superhero flicks. Aside from Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, few of them bothered to find high profile and high-price movie stars. Thor, for instance, cast a relative unknown as the title character. I suppose they hedged their bets by casting Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but the leading man is still only known for that one film. Ditto Captain America. Chris Evans has starred in some high-profile projects, but he’s hardly an A-list movie Star.
Ah yes. The mythic “A-List.” I think we all kind of intuit what The A-List is, but there is not actual list anywhere defining what they are. What is an A-List star anyway? I imagine they are an actor or other pop star who has reached a certain level of fame, maintains a certain level of public visibility, constantly produces product, constantly receives work, and makes a certain amount of money. There was a time (and I’m going all the way back to the ‘30s and ‘40s for this) when studios would not open a film unless a recognizable star was attached. Often, the star would even be attached before the film itself was even decided upon. The power of the Matinee Idol was such that entire film trends were dictated by whether or not Joan Crawford felt like working that month. Sure, there were plenty of films that featured unknown actors, but they were typically relegated to the B-feature. Only a star would be cast in a “big” picture.
These days, to finally get to the thesis of this article, the idea of a “Movie Star” seems to be in a nebulous state. You’ll often hear older generations (which I think includes me at this point) harping on about how movie stars of today don’t resemble movie stars of the past. But I think we’ve finally reached a place where that complaint is legitimate, and not merely based on nostalgia. If big stars aren’t needed to open a big movie anymore, why seek them out? Why even have an unwritten movie star caste system? Sure, there are still some people in the world who will shell out to see big movie stars without even reading up on the movie in question, but I think, increasingly, audiences are seeking content over form.
I mentioned a statistic in our last episode (and who knows how accurate it is) that one of the top downloaded films on the Netflix instant streaming service was Certified Copy, a relatively slow-paced film directed by Abbas Kiarostami that philosophizes on the nature of truth, and is partly staged in French. It’s talky and stars Juliette Binoche, not exactly a “movie star” when it comes to the myth of the American A-List. Another one of the top-5 films on Netflix (according to that same nebulous study) was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a thriller and a potboiler based on a hugely popular book, yes, but a film in Swedish. Perhaps with films like this leading the pack, we can intuit that audiences aren’t as afraid of subtitles as Hollywood producers seem to think, and that they’re seeking out smaller films. People are being drawn to content over flash. Thanks to home video, and now to instant streaming technologies, audiences now have equal access to Certified Copy and to Captain America. Just the way VHS did 30 years ago, Netflix seems to be evening the playing field.
And when the playing field is even, and content is actually succeeding over the tried-and-true studio formula, whither the Movie Star? In this new paradigm, is there room for matinee idols? Or is every single actor now going to have to rely on their craft and talent as a wondering performer to be noticed? Perhaps we have already entered a phase where a performer’s talent and daring will succeed over their easy charm and well-known magazine cover appeal. We will have fewer Movie Stars and more Actors.
Hollywood is a risk-free machine, and if an actor proves to carry a popular indie film, a big studio will be quick to scoop them up, and put them in a high-profile action picture; look at Jennifer Lawrence. So good in Winter’s Bone, so oddly-cast as a blue-skinned shapeshifter in X-Men: First Class. So as long as there are notable and talented people working in the acting profession, there will always be a tendency to bank on them and to idolize them. And when it comes times for the list-makers to talk about 'The Best,' these people will often be mentioned. Perhaps the cycle of talent and hero worship is just part of our nature. We need to have heroes and list our favorites.
Those lists, though, have fewer and fewer commonalities these days. The new question should be: Does that mean there are no more heroes, or that everyone is a hero? And, really, aren’t those kind of the same thing?
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
When we think of “Movie Stars,” we think of legends: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, or at least Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. The big names, the iconic faces, the performances that were more-or-less the same from film to film, but that audiences shelled out hard-earned cash for over and over again anyway. Actually, not “anyway,” but “because of.” They went to the theaters to see Humphrey Bogart play out his classic persona. Maybe we’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole of ubiquitous media to fall for that anymore. We can now follow our favorite celebrities on a minute-to-minute basis on their Twitter accounts, or seek out our favorite clips of their performances on YouTube. More importantly we can do both of those things on our cell phones in the line for Jack in the Box, or on the bus to work. Seeing them in a theater has long since ceased to be “special.” So why do we still go to the movies?
We go to the movies, more than ever, to see the actual f*cking movies. When films like Paranormal Activity and The Help can break the bank without a single bona fide “movie star” involved (no, Emma Stone doesn’t count yet), we need to rethink our paradigm, at least domestically. Internationally, where pre-sales are so terribly important, having a recognizable star means a lot more than here at home. The presence of Tom Cruise can sell a movie to other countries, but here we don’t terribly care – if Valkyrie and Knight and Day are any indication – unless the movie’s got “Mission: Impossible” in the title. International sales mean more than ever today. The Adventures of Tintin has only made $64 million domestically so far, but $268 million overseas. And why is that? Well, Hergé’s Tintin comic books are a big honking deal everywhere but in the United States. It’s the story they care about. Spielberg helps, and maybe Daniel Craig’s name on the poster made it easier to swallow, but the adaptation is all they wanted to see.
But really, this isn’t that much of a change. Audiences tend to like their movies familiar and safe. Movie stars aren’t terribly reliable anymore. Even if their performances are consistently good, the movies they’re actually in can still be absolute crap. Then again if the movies are part of a familiar franchise, like Fast Five, the comfort zone is back. Not a single member of the Fast Five cast can really “open” a movie on their own, by which we mean their presence would guarantee a box office success, or at least a kick-ass opening weekend. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson may be household names, but that apparently meant bupkis as far as Babyon A.D. and Gridiron Gang were involved. Put them together and it helps, since their names still mean something, but put them together in an existing, popular franchise and it suddenly really means something. The movies are the real stars these days, with one key exception.
I try to give as much attention to Straight-to-Video movies as possible, both on The B-Movies Podcast and CraveOnline proper. They’re the black sheep of the film industry, keeping many companies afloat without calling much attention to themselves. Many of them get theatrical distribution internationally but are dumped unceremoniously into video stores and Netflix domestically without so much as a “thanks for trying.” They’re barely advertised, except on other Straight-to-Video DVDs, and as such most of their target demographic has to select them based on something other than advance buzz. The genre matters – hardcore horror buffs will watch just about anything that qualifies, for example – and when it comes to mockbusters like The Almighty Thor and Transmorphers they’re also banking on familiarity, arguably even trickery, to sucker in fans of bigger franchises who are looking for a quick fix. But if a Straight-to-Video movie has a star you like, such as Nathan Fillion, David Carradine or at least 1980’s pop idol Tiffany, you’re more likely to give them a shot. They provide that nebulous air of legitimacy. “This film,” their casting implies, “might actually be worth your time, even if it is called Dinocroc vs. Supergator.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe we’re so fully aware of every movie coming out, from the development stage onwards, that we’re finally able to make our decisions based on more than just the talent involved. “Tom Cruise is in a movie? That’s cool, maybe I’ll read that news article” has replaced “Tom Cruise is in a movie? That’s cool, maybe I’ll see it.” Whereas many people think that film critics have lost their relevance in the modern age, it’s equally likely that they’ve been replaced in the paradigm with up-to-the-minute entertainment industry updates. We don’t get our information from critics, except perhaps when a movie completely slipped under the radar. We get our information from the internet, on sites like CraveOnline (shameless plug… oh, who am I kidding, I am filled with shame), and have often made our decision long before marketing begins in earnest. Except of course when we’re already fans of the story, in which case it doesn’t matter how bad Amazing Spider-Man looks from the trailer, folks will still line up the night beforehand to see it first, because hey… It's still Spider-Man.
Movie stars are dead. Long live the actual movies.