A Fading Star System

 
 

As A-list Hollywood stars fail to sell tickets at the box office, Dermot O’Rourke explains why their appeal is waning

Who is your favourite movie star? If your favourite movie star is cast in any movie, does the movie become mandatory viewing? It is these questions Hollywood studios still consider when producing their new movies, however, it appears that this attitude does not reflect the consumption behaviour of modern audiences. In recent times, many of Hollywood’s biggest stars have failed to illuminate the box office. Some stars, including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts are among the biggest earners in the film industry yet their movies are failing to generate the revenue that their status or wages command.

Hollywood is currently dependent on stardom to sell movies. The studios employ movie stars not just as actors, but as the representation of the film in the public domain, and are reliant on a star’s celebrity status in the promotion and consumption of their films. However, if Hollywood casts a star on their ability to sell a film, a prerequisite for which is a star’s exposure to the public, it does prompt the question – in an unprecedented time of celebrity voyeurism, why is it that the most famous cannot seem to appeal to the public?

This system of promoting the star as a mechanism for selling tickets was conceived in the Golden Era of Hollywood (1920s-1950s). At that time, filmmaking operated under the studio system, and each major studio had all personnel, including stars, under long-term contracts. With these contracts, studios had the power to control decisions on the stars’ roles, and by sending publicity materials to media outlets about their private lives (designed to complement their on-screen image), they could construct a coherent identity for each star.

In the modern era, Hollywood stars are liberated from restrictive studio contracts and are largely the manufacturer of their own image. In contrast to the professional image seeming to reflect the private life of the stars in the Golden Era, there appears to be a paradox of images for certain movie stars of the modern era. For actors such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the public are acutely aware of the distinction between their screen image as charismatic leading men and their involvement in Scientology, which has damaged their appeal – From Paris with Love and Knight and Day having both performed poorly at the box office in 2010. Mel Gibson has seen his public reputation so irreversibly damaged that he is considered toxic in any film, as his role in The Beaver and its subsequent flop proved.

For stars such as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts of box office failure Larry Crowne there is a more pertinent factor that can limit a movie star’s economic power: a rapidly fragmenting entertainment marketplace. Other public figures such as pop stars, reality TV stars and sportsmen have become more influential in the products the public consume. The market has become saturated with people craving public attention, which often dilutes the exposure of the movie star.

The Hollywood studios have recognised their diminishing grip on the front pages of magazines and this is reflected in their confidence in emerging stars to generate the publicity to sell movies. For instance, recent promotional posters for The Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds declared: “Hal Jordan is the Green Lantern.” This suggested that the studio did not believe Reynolds could sell the movie to a wider audience beyond the fans already familiar with the material. Similarly, for the film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper, Robert de Niro was cast opposite Cooper and was depicted as having a larger role in the promotional material to bolster publicity and appeal for this high concept premise, despite being only introduced in the second act and having very few scenes in the film.

There are stars in the modern era, however, that are anomalies to any concept of stardom as an essential ingredient to the success of a film. Leonardo DiCaprio had relative success before he was propelled into the stratosphere with his starring role in (what was) the most successful film of all time, Titanic. DiCaprio has since had tremendous critical and commercial success with multiple films including Catch Me If You Can, Shutter Island and Inception. However, I do not think that the success of these films has been solely due to DiCaprio’s stardom. Although his fame has been a complementary factor, their popularity is a result of collaborations with some of the greatest filmmakers in American cinema.

While the breakdown of the studio system has given stars new independence it has ultimately meant less productions and higher job insecurity. Studios are placing too much weight on the appeal of a star when they are certainly not a pre-condition of profitability at the box office. With an oversupply of actors and a star’s status defined by their latest film, there is always a sense of any star being replaceable. Well, except Leonardo DiCaprio.

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