The stars who fell to earth
A big name isn't enough to sell a movie any more. Is this the end of our obsession with celebrities? HERO BROWN reports
Sunday 21 November 1999
t's enough to make Harrison Ford go back to carpentry. New research on the film industry reveals that stars just aren't as, well, "starry" as they used to be. Professor S Abraham Ravid of Rutgers University, New Jersey studied over 200 films before concluding that, while hiring a big name can hardly be considered detrimental to a movie, it's no longer anything to whoop about. n Hollywood terms, this concept is as inconceivable as suggesting that bad teeth should be compulsory for a romantic lead.
" originally thought that my research would back up accepted industry wisdom - that the star system must work - because why pay an A-list actor $15m if the public are just as happy watching an unknown?" admits Professor Ravid, who has been fielding excited calls from penny-pinching Hollywood executives ever since his report came to light this month. "But then when all the variables were considered - the cost of the movie, the quality of reviews, the publicity budgets and so on - it became apparent that the statistical significance of the star disappeared. n fact, one of the reasons why big name stars are in so much demand is simply because the industry is one of extreme uncertainty and executives want to be `covered' in case a project fails."
While no one's about to kick Demi Moore and Nicolas Cage out onto the Hollywood sidewalk, and it's true that no actor can have a 100 per cent hit record (if you're Kevin Costner, it's about 30) it's nevertheless true that a large number of celebrity vehicles have flopped appallingly of late. Hands up anyone who's seen Robin Williams in Jakob the Liar? What about John Travolta in The General's Daughter? Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior? Even Brad Pitt, heavily supported by the swooning media, has failed to set the box office alight for The Fight Club, which has only taken $40m worldwide to date (that's only about twice Pitt's salary for the film).
Meanwhile, at the other extreme, The Blair Witch Project continues to rewrite movie history. With no stars, no budget, grass-roots word-of-mouth publicity (or rather, `word of mouse' as witty internet types call it) and only audacious originality to recommend it, it has done ballistic box office (it is the most profitable film ever) and rewritten the rules on what - and who - constitutes a successful movie. Similarly actresses like Ashley Judd and Penelope Cruz are creating a buzz that's putting more established names in the shade.
"People are ready for new talent," confirms Barry Norman, veteran film critic and presenter of Sky television's Film Night, "because many of the `stars' who used to open movies can no longer do it. Others are knocking on a bit and need to be replaced by younger actors. would say that Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis - all these people are serious film stars who can open a movie. But there has been a certain levelling out of ground between stars and the public. Under the studio system in particular, publicity was carefully meted out and the audience was strongly given the impression that these people walked on water, that you could see fresh air between the ground and their feet. Now people are more sophisticated, and they are sick of hearing about Jennifer Aniston's top hair tips - as am, actually."
What's good for the Americans is good for the British, and we seem to be going through a similar disenchantment with our home-grown stars. Writer Julie Burchill fumed last week about the "indifference" we now feel towards most celebrities. "f you want to get ahead, make sure you're smaller than life," she snarled, referring to the way we've started to dismiss "traditional" celebrities and turn instead to the "personality-figures" of docusoaps, animal shows and gardening programmes. Certainly our interest in the celebrity A-list is taken with a heavy dose of irony. Meg Matthews, Kate Moss, Anna Friel, Patsy Kensit, Geri Halliwell, Ronan Keating, Chris Evans and the self-styled acting "Brit Pack" tiptoe on a knife-edge between our admiration and derision.
Now the tabloids are starting to turn the screw. The Mirror last week ran a colour full-page picture of Elizabeth Hurley glammed up for yet another film premiere. She stands, smiling, poised, cleavage at the ready, lips like rubber tyres. Nothing unusual there, except the scathing attack that ran alongside with it. "The Mirror would like to congratulate Ms Elizabeth Hurley on the 5,000th occasion she has attended a party thrusting her cleavage at photographers for no apparent reason other than to appear in the same papers that she regularly claims to despise." Tabloid bitchiness, yes. But it is also an indication that to be a "star" is now far from a guarantee of respect.
Certainly in terms of movies, the idea of being loyal to a film - regardless of its merits - because a certain celebrity is attached, is fast becoming an anachronism. "The truth is that the movie has finally become the star," says Christopher Pickard, author and former editor of industry magazine Moving Pictures nternational. "Just look at franchise movies like Bond. t doesn't matter who is playing 007 because the movie itself is bigger than the person who's acting in it. Similarly people haven't been going to see The Sixth Sense because big baldy Bruce Willis is starring in it. They've been going despite him in a way, because Willis's usual genre is the studio action movie, yet they've heard that The Sixth Sense is an amazing film with a great twist at the end. The movie gets the Oscar." This is particularly resonant, given that Bruce Willis' romantic star vehicle with Michelle Pfeiffer, The Story of Us, has bombed in the States, having only taken $25m in its first four weeks.
While the cult of celebrity - our willingness to digest all manner of media bilge, from the contents of Anna Friel's handbag and Maria Carey's favourite cocktail to Ricky Martin's love life - goes ever more stratospheric, in a kind of inverse snobbism, we are also desperate to discover, and be surprised again.
Unfortunately, the record industry has interpreted this not as a need for new talent, but new faces, and has gone to town on identikit boy and girl bands aimed primarily at the kiddie market (this week's Top 40 includes songs by Another Level, Westlife, Backstreet Boys, SClub7, Steps, Britney Spears and Christine Aguilera, all perfect dance moves and too much hair gel).
On the other hand would-be novelists can take heart - agents and publishers report a surge of interest this year in first-time writers, encouraged by a dissatisfied twenty-something market. "You can't manufacture a new writer, but there is definitely a clamour among the public for new talent," says James Gill, book agent at PFD. "There's strong growth in the younger book-buying public, and these people are looking for a new voice that reflects them."
"A lot of publishers have felt the need to reinvigorate their lists," agrees The Bookseller editor Nicholas Clee. "Their best-selling authors have been around a long time and some were showing a falling off in sales, so they've been eagerly snapping up twenty and thirtysomething authors with very high advances - some as high as pounds 350,000. t's become almost a cliche in the book business that one of the reasons there's been an increase in the number of first-time authors is because they don't have track records, they're not `established' - so you can get a burst of enthusiasm going much better."
Vitally, the kind of authors getting signed are not so much the glamour and sex variety (give or take the odd offering from Amanda Platell, Tory party spin doctor and some-time raunchy novelist) but those set within a realistic landscape. Urban lives, drugs, problems with girlfriends, dead-end jobs, inability to commit to relationships - the likes of Daren King's Boxy an Star (which, according to rumour, almost made it onto the Booker Prize list) and Jake Arnott's Sixties gay gangland thriller The Long Firm. ronically it's this grounded quality that we are looking for in our "stars".
"Our relationship with celebrities has become diluted," says Martin Pascoe, researcher at trend agency The nformer and author of a report "We Could Be Heroes". "We'll cherry pick from a repertoire of people we admire for different reasons, but we no longer put people on a pedestal merely because they are famous. We're looking for something a bit more real these days, we're buying into integrity and down-to-earth values. But the truth is, there are fewer celebrities who fulfil that criteria. The person you champion today, might not be here tomorrow."
That's why the likes of Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt have, despite their undoubted charisma, all the warmth of a glacier (Pitt doesn't call himself "the void that fills the void" for nothing). t's also why we are much more responsive to Denise van Outen's brassy honesty; Sophie Marceau's wonderful indiscretions (last heard calling Robert de Niro "a funny little man didn't even recognise"); Martine McCutcheon's chubby, chirpy friendliness; Robbie Williams' getting fat and thin, on drugs and off drugs. Being human, just like us.
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