Where have all the movie stars gone? Once upon a time big names on even bigger marquees were as close to a guarantee of good box office as one gets in the movie biz, but no more.
This weekend The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the third part of the young adult series, hit theatres. Based on a series of successful books, it stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James in a teen epic about dystopia, guilt and artfully tossed pixie haircuts. In the new film the pair risk it all to go beyond the walls of their shattered city to discover the truth about their troubled world.
Woodley and James are appealing performers and despite having chiselled cheekbones, a Golden Globe nomination and a Teen Choice Award for Choice Movie: Liplock between them no one is going to see Allegiant because they’re in it. Why? Because they’re not movie stars, they’re brand ambassadors. The movie’s brand is bigger than they are and that’s the draw.
Young adult movies like Twilight made Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart famous and superhero films reignited Robert Downey Jr.’s career and turned Chris Hemsworth into a sex symbol, but none of these actors have scored recent hits outside of their best-known brands.
These days the marketing is more important than the movie star.
It’s almost a throwback to the very early days of cinema when actors weren’t given billing or publicized for the films they made. Fearing performers would demand larger paycheques if they became popular the studios gave them nicknames instead. Hamilton, Ontario born Florence Lawrence was known as the Biograph Girl, named after the studio that produced her films, but with the release of The Broken Oath in 1910 became the first entertainer to have her name appear in the credits of a film.
Floodgates opened, soon names like Mary Pickford (another Biograph Girl), Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin festooned not only movie credits but posters as well, usually above the title. The studios seized the marketing value of their actors and for years the star system was a money-spinner.
These stars were so powerful they not only sold tickets by the fistful but also influenced contemporary trends. For instance, it’s rumoured that sales of men’s undershirts plummeted in 1934 when The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, was seen without one in It Happened One Night. As the legend goes, sales took such a hit several underwear manufacturers tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Columbia Pictures for damages.
For decades stars ruled supreme at the box office, but the business has changed. I’m guessing the movie studios love it because no film brand ever asked for more money or a bigger trailer.
Certainly Tom Cruise can still sell a ticket or three, but only if his movie has the words Mission Impossible in the title and Matt Damon was brought back in to add star sparkle to the new Jason Bourne movie after a lackluster reboot with Jeremy Renner. Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star. Her latest film Joy, the empowering story of a woman and her mop, wasn’t a big hit but without her star power would likely never have been made at all.
It’s not just the movie business’s attitude toward fame that has changed, it’s also ours. Today a proliferation of YouTube superstars and social media has democratized fame and in a world and business where everyone is famous, no one truly is, not even the stars of a blockbuster like The Divergent Series: Allegiant.