Those were the days: George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt in Ocean's 11. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
To lure audiences to movie theaters in the early days, Hollywood invented the concept of the movie star. The latter is now an endangered species, according to a new study by research firm NRG. The results of the survey were released last week by Matthew Belloni, an influential journalist and former entertainment lawyer whose newsletter What I'm Hearing keeps the pulse of the industry on; the statistics point to a dystopian future in which only aging stars will retain the power of gravity to make us shell out for a movie ticket.
Respondents were asked to name up to five stars whose involvement in the film would encourage them to go see it — not for streaming, but for theaters. Many of the expected names provided answers, with Tom Cruise topping the list, with Dwayne Johnson, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington below. Julia Roberts ranked sixth among female stars, Sandra Bullock ranked 12th and Angelina Jolie ranked 18th.
According to Belloni, many studio executives involved in the creation of new projects studied this list with horror. And while that testifies to the enduring appeal of many stars that have been around since the 1990s — or even earlier, in Harrison Ford's case — there's surprisingly little fresh blood in him. There is only one actor under the age of 40 in the top 20, and that is 39-year-old Chris Hemsworth, who made his way to the very bottom.
For the leadership of Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Michael B Jordan or Tom Holland, all of whom may have assumed their A-list status would see them on this list, this is disturbing news. These young actors may have a loyal following on social media, but their actual star power isn't strong enough to keep slackers sitting in physical seats – unlike, say, three of Ocean's most popular movie stars (Clooney, Pitt, Roberts). . While the younger contingent have been linked to their own successful franchises like The Hunger Games, Dune, Creed, and Spider-Man, the implication seems clear: it was the appeal of those franchises themselves, not the names of the actors. that attracted players.
This disturbing truth becomes even clearer when you look at the statistics of the most profitable actors of all time. Scarlett Johansson topped this particular list in January despite not even making the top 20 in the aforementioned poll. She's appeared as Black Widow in nine Marvel films to date, raising her box office to the stratosphere – but are people queuing because they want to see ScarJo herself? Obviously not.
Marvel star Scarlett Jonansson is the highest grossing actress of all time. Photo: Marvel Studios/Disney via AP. But keeping interest only in long-established stars is a new development that seriously threatens the future of the industry.
Back in 1961, 29-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was the biggest draw of the day – and she had nothing like a superhero franchise to increase her profitability. The audience went to the Liz Taylor film to see Liz Taylor. The same can be said for Marlon Brando when he was in his early 20s when he became a sensation, and even John Travolta, who was only 23 when Saturday Night Fever (1977) propelled him to stardom. It's hard to imagine that a year later, Grease would have been such a hit without him. A generation before them, the biggest stars in the sky were Mickey Rooney, barely in his teens, and Shirley Temple, whose four-year reign as America's number one box office began the year she turned seven.
Thus, the vast majority of films were stars. Fast-forward to the present day and see how things have changed: Margot Robbie in Barbie and Chalamet in Wonka — two of this year's most anticipated films — are clearly subservient to the brands they sell. Things were different with 23-year-old Eddie Murphy when Beverly Hills Cop (1984) came out, and with Leonardo DiCaprio, the same age as Titanic (1997). The hits built around them over and over again depended very specifically on their talents. The same certainly applies to Denzel Washington. But Mission: Impossible in some alternate reality might have chosen a different protagonist, since the pre-existing concept was itself a hook. (However, it must be admitted that Top Gun: Maverick is without Tom Cruise? They may have tried to reboot the original, but there was no way it could make $1.49 billion worldwide.)
Canceled? Audiences still hold Johnny Depp in high regard, but studio bosses remain wary of hiring him. Photo: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
One problem is that stellar careers used to run on average budgets—something like The Color of Money for Cruise, say, or Pretty Woman for Julia Roberts. The existence of this whole stratum of films, especially romantic comedies, is under threat, at least in terms of their ability to be released in theaters. These ideas are pumped into streaming services, where the importance of stars is clearly secondary. Netflix is not interested in boosting the star's visibility to the point where they can “open” the film. And that's because Netflix movies don't open – they just appear on your home TV.
Meanwhile, the remaining studios are putting all their resources into keeping the blockbuster pipeline running. Stars are just poster faces locked in multi-movie commitments where they basically do the same thing every time. Throughout their well-organized careers, film icons of the past have had the opportunity to surprise us, derail their image, or go against the grain – as did James Stewart, everyone's favorite tweed-wearing handsome guy, in his dark obsession with working for Hitchcock. Being chained to endless franchising assignments is extremely limiting in any such field, and it's not just the performers who suffer – it's the bane of storytelling itself. Did we really expect Chris Pratt to reinvent himself in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3?
It's much safer for studios to turn the franchise itself into a star. While Robert Pattinson can be abruptly canceled for any reason, Batman can never be. Stars, of course, can be easily replaced – we've seen it happening now with Kevin Spacey, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer – and the business is just moving forward. (Depp may be ninth in the poll, which suggests consumers want to cancel his involvement, but that hasn't yet prompted studio bosses to consider him bank-worthy again.) brand, when can that brand be tarnished by one random tweet?
No: the brands that make sense are Mattel toys, caped crusaders, or any character that's bigger than the actor playing them. Opportunities for one of those powerful, ever-changing stellar careers like those of Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep are shrinking by the day. May their style of fame rest in peace, and instead, long live the franchise – no one ever said who doesn't give a damn about movies.