Where would Hollywood be without its stars? Easy. It would be making innovative indie movies without the pressure of the big names, and argues Kevin Maher, without the hype, the egos and the expense.

Hollywood is worried. The writing is on the wall for the money men and the stars they pay millions for.

Miraculously, 1997, an annus horribilis for clunky, lethargic A-list star vehicles - Seven Years in Tibet, The Game, The Peacemaker, Speed 2, Father's Day - is closing its end-of-year cash-drawers on a slew of ultra-slick hyper-successful B-grade movies - I Know What You Did Last Summer, Bean, Starship Troopers, and Mortal Kombat Annihilation.

These films are notable primarily for their lack of movie stars, which means an absence of precious egos to assuage, of crippling, multi-million- dollar salaries to fork out, of script approval and final-cut decisions to deliberate over. Yet despite this lack, and, most important, because of it, the box office is booming, and the public is screaming for more of the same.

The message on that wall is simple and glaring: the days of the Hollywood star are numbered. Gibson, Douglas, Pacino, Pitt, Moore, Bullock and Hoffman ... could the last one out please close the door behind them?

Restless audiences, bored by the inadequate draw of familiar, limited, one-note movie stars, have turned unanimously to the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Bean, and Starship Troopers - movies that showcase, respectively, precocious teenage talent, independent savvy, and jaw-dropping effects.

Jeff Kaye, of the Hollywood Reporter, the studio executive's bible, admits: "These are changing times, and what we are witnessing is a transition period, a complete changeover in the star system. You can't have Stallone and Douglas for ever."

What he doesn't mention is that this transition has been induced by a decrepit and dissipated system whereby big stars make big but indifferent movies such as The Saint, or The Devil's Own, or Absolute Power. It is a system that is staring into the void of teen dreams, dino-FX, and worthy indies.

Movies and their stars have been trapped in a symbiotic head-lock since the Biograph Girl of 1910, through to Demi Moore. Yet at the end of the Eighties, with the monumental success of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman, the movie star and the movie began to fall out. Suddenly, every studio wanted to make the big action movie, and every star wanted his or her cut. Stars evolved into ridiculously powerful players in multi- million-dollar gambles. The escalating pay package reached a ludicrous climax in 1994, when Columbia happily dished out $20m to Jim Carrey for The Cable Guy, and as $100m movies became the A-list industry standard, a fear of risking innovation became the monster budget's defining formula. These movies, repositories of all things static and derivative, are best exemplified by this year's crop of big-star disasters: The Peacemaker (seen it before), Speed 2 (done it), Conspiracy Theory (seen it), Mad City (doing it tomorrow). They are the reductio ad absurdum of a system that has allowed its stars to dominate their own movies into abject failure.

Eric Fellner, co-producer of the unlikely smash hit Bean, notes: "It is happening at the moment, but still you have some studios who just will not make a movie without a big star, like Warner Bros with Mad City. With Hoffman and Travolta the movie looks like a guaranteed hit on paper, but it does nothing. Nothing is guaranteed."

Today's dwindling Hollywood elite have also suddenly had to confront a shift in audience demographics that appears to be working against their every move. A recent Motion Picture Association of America study found that the 12-17 age group are the single largest US cinema-going audience, and they've begun to make their clout felt at the box office. These are the kids who go to see Know What You Did, Scream, Clueless and Romeo + Juliet. This is the cyber-literate establishment who watch Party of Five, My So-Called Life, and Beverly Hills 90210 on TV, and care little for Mel Gibson and his ilk.

When they're not downloading teen dramas, this new, visually hyper-cognitive generation shows a great predilection for the blockbusting thrills of special effects movies, a trend that has not been lost on the humble Hollywood exec. Big, computer-generated bucks are thrown on to the screen but beyond the reach of the dispensable stars - see the Star-lite SFX champs The Lost World, Starship Troopers, Titanic ($200m worth of special effects and counting), and this week's box office winner, Mortal Kombat Annihilation. In this arena, when the costs are questioned the stars are the first to go.

It's bad enough being out-ranked by a computer, but the movie star has now to watch helplessly as Hollywood rushes headlong into the indie movie. After carefully observing the well-documented rise of modern independent film, from the Sundance Film Festival to Tarantino to Fargo to The Full Monty, the major Hollywood studios have all acquired "independent" subsidiaries - Miramax, Fox 2000, and October Films being the front-runners. Tapping into a public appetite for "meaningful" cinematic experiences, the majors are devoting more time and money to high-profit, low-budget films such as Swingers and Chasing Amy, projects unencumbered by big Hollywood talent, where the real stars are the auteur-directors.

The final, and perhaps insuperable, denial of the modern movie star is the cultural climate that supports it. If, as Kaye suggests, this is a period of complete changeover in the star system, the biggest question is surely a changeover to what? The film star thrives off the specific needs of a cinema-going public. But now the immutable film star, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, is the one left lagging behind. With the rapid proliferation of Internet access, the popularisation of WebTV, and the sudden surprise of almost-interactive film on DVD (Digital Versatile/Video Disks), the new techno-teenager no longer celebrates the romantic wonder that the cinema is supposed to foster. Instead, theirs is a relationship with visual images that is far more democratic than the previous generation. They are interactive spectators, unaccustomed to the fawning adoration required to define the star.

This new post-Play Station approach to movies, combined with the all- important multiplex takeover, speaks of a promiscuous, capricious modern movie-goer - an SFX horror flick at the local 'plex one week is just as good as a comedy the next, yet what's even better is the DVD experience at home, which allows you to choose from the film's six different endings, the DVD that lets you select the camera shots, and which ultimately proves that you are the real focus of the film. You too can be a star.

Of course, the Hollywood star is not going to go quietly into the night, and with the help of the studios they are trying desperately to spice up their own dowdy product. "Pairing" is the current big draw - Travolta vs Cage (Face Off), Gere vs Willis (The Jackal), Pacino vs Reeves (Devil's Advocate), Hoffman vs Travolta (Mad City), and so on. Yet, given that Hollywood's dictum has always been "follow the money", it won't be long before it finally loses interest in the fate of the glorious and glamorous modern movie star.

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