As if answering our well-established hypothesis about Hollywood shutting down the production of genuine movie stars, the industry offered a positively scientific blitz of testing this year to challenge that assertion and ultimately prove it correct.
The home version of the game is to try and name the last movie star minted by the studios, the last big name to emerge and become wildly popular because of their appearances in motion pictures, the last figure to be crafted by the system in order to help secure a bigger box office for it. However, filmmakers gave us something much more concrete this year in order to prove once and for all that — while a face or two still rises from the periphery to the forefront in movies — we should be mourning the concept of “The Movie Star.” They gave us Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch.
Let’s start with some magic.
2012 was theoretically a very good year for Tatum. The actor who first got notice (and derision) through films like Step Up and Dear John starred in three consecutive blockbusters: the romantic tearjerker The Vow, the irreverent and surprisingly hilarious adaptation of 21 Jump Street, and Soderbergh’s no-stakes summer drama about male strippers, Magic Mike. More than any other leading man in 2012, People’s “Sexiest man Alive” seems the most reliable seven-digit check to write if you want a guaranteed opening for your movie.
While Tatum has some promising prospects on the horizon for an actor with relatively little charisma (Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, Soderbergh’s Side Effects, and the much-delayed GI Joe sequel await audiences in 2013), the actor’s stand-up year is no guarantee of a lasting place in the $20m club (where actors command the largest of paychecks simply for having their name/face largest on the poster). So if he’s found so much success, why wouldn’t his involvement in a movie mean breezing to an easy $100m+ box office? He’s a household name, but does that mean that most people care to see the movies he’s in?
A Black Hole For Stars
The first true movie star was Florence Lawrence, the Canadian film actress who made 39 movies before her 22nd birthday and bloomed under D.W. Griffith’s direction at Biograph Studios. She and Mary Pickford became well loved by 1910, but Lawrence was the first to have her silent face connected with her full (stage) name. She became an icon that the studio could use as a sales tool to draw audiences. “You love Florence Lawrence? Well she’s in this one, so come see it!”
Oddly enough, silent film actors were barred from having their names publicized in the early days because producers were afraid their notability would lead to them asking for, you guessed it, more money. Those fears would be proven true throughout the next 9 decades to the delight of studios who realized those larger paychecks would be covered by the huge audience attendance brought on by the powerful gravity of the star. Evolving from a time when producers saw no need to give true credit to the people acting in the work, the reason for building an actor’s public persona was to have a powerful advertising tool in their arsenal. Thus, it’s not that difficult to understand why creating stars has become so difficult: one actor’s name is no longer the most expeditious way to draw an audience. In fact, it might not even be that effective at all anymore.
There are several possible reasons why the Hollywood movie star has gone out of commission, but it’s important to separate the symptoms from the causes. The effects of the star’s decline include the perceived bankability of untraditional leading men like those who came from the Apatow factory, or the fact that former megastars like Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt both released films this year (Cloud Atlas and Killing Them Softly) that were subjects of contentious debate in critical circles, but barely made a blip with audiences despite their wide releases.
On the newer side of the coin, the most evident effect is the illusion of stars trying to be born. The three leads of the Twilight series. Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner, and Robert Pattinson have no trouble riding the franchise to record openings and attendance, but they haven’t opened a blockbusting movie themselves without the aid of property-recognition. That Stewart was originally booted out of the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel after a tabloid controversy speaks to the lack of real faith that even the studios have in the necessity for above-title names to sell a movie. As further proof that execs have already known about the death of the Movie Star, Lautner was a part of the desperate omnibus Valentine’s Day that tried to pull an Expendables by having an insane amount of notable actors as its draw. If the math is to be believed, you now need 12 stars to do the work that 2 could have gotten done just 20 years ago.
Whether responsible for or because of this weakening of star power, properties have become the dominant sales point.