Death of the Movie Star: Yes, It's For Real

This is something I’ve been writing about since I took to these here Internets in 2004 — and not gleefully. I love movies and I really love movie stars, and to watch the film industry devolve over the past decade into a CGI, shaky-cammed, high-concept, fanboy wet dream-a-thon has been more than a little heartbreaking. People used to argue with me about the death of the movie star. But not so much today. Now we’re just arguing over why.

In an interesting but flawed piece of analysis, The Daily Mail makes some key points and, I think, gets some things wrong:

Various reasons have been suggested to explain this new and — from the stars’ point of view — deeply worrying phenomenon.

Some say that blockbusting actors and actresses are simply pricing themselves out of the market. Depp, possibly the highest-paid actor in movies today, earns around 12 million a picture.

In his time, Cruise has done even better. With gross points — a percentage of everything taken at the box office — he pocketed nearly 50 million from Mission Impossible 2 in 2000.

But that was 11 years ago, when Cruise was in his heyday and the audience demographic was different. Then, the average age of cinemagoers fell roughly between 12 and 25.

Since then there’s been a considerable change. Today, the mass of cinema audiences is aged between 15 and 18 — and that’s what poses such a threat to the existence of big movie stars.

Kids of that age are not interested in veterans like Hanks (55), Cruise (49) or even Depp (48), except when he plays Jack Sparrow in the frankly juvenile Pirates Of The Caribbean series. Watching old men like them on screen would be like watching their fathers cavorting about.


Even Roberts (44), Diaz (39) and Jolie (36), desirable as they might be to the audiences’ dads, come across as little more than auntie figures.

This modern, young audience has no interest in the established stars. What it wants to see is either people closer to its own age (for instance Robert Pattinson, 25, as a toothsome vampire in the Twilight saga) or crash-bang special effects in films such as the sci-fi Transformers series, or in the X-Men superheroes films, or the forthcoming Captain America.

Frankly this is too simple. A to B to C sounds good but doesn’t really add up.

For starters, why did the mass movie-going age suddenly collapse from 12 to 25 all the way down to the even narrower 15 to 18? Are we supposed to believe people over 18 are genetic freaks who find movie-going unappealing? Society didn’t change over the last decade, the movies did.

Films aimed at teens will never change. Vampires, superheroes, lame musicals, horror films, teen romance, bawdy comedies, etc. This is not a hard nut to crack and that formula has been around since my generation went to high school. So, as we see, the movie industry is still able to hang on to that crowd. What I have seen change over the past decade are films aimed at those of us over 18 and this change has been a suicidal one for any industry interested in making a profit.

With notable exceptions, no longer are we being inspired in a darkened theatre or asked to aspire. No longer are we made to feel good about who we are or what we believe in. No longer is the heart warmed or the feel-good feel-gooded. Instead we are guilted, preached to and told nihilism and narcissism are values. Today, going to the movies for grown ups has become one expensive bummer where the asshole next to you is usually on his cell phone. For every “Blind Side” we get 20 anti-American films.

Yep, I’ll wait for RedBox, thank you very much. And sometimes not even that.

Movie stars haven’t done themselves much good, either. What used to be a subculture of transplants from all over the country who knew how they good they had it and understood Middle America (because they came from there or knew someone who did), is now mostly Southern California natives aided by nepotism who look down on their audience.

All we’re guilty of is not-liking them back.

Finally, there’s also no precedent for teenage moviegoers turning on movie stars of a certain age. In 1984, Arnold, Clint, Stallone, Chuck Norris, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Chevy Chase, Harrison Ford, the “Star Trek” crew and Jack Nicholson were all close to our parents age and older — but we all stood in line to see them. So it’s just absurd to state that kids today are mostly drawn to actors closer to their own age. If that were true, a Robert Pattinson movie where he doesn’t play a moody vampire would be a hit, and that’s simply not been the case.

The only movie stars left in America have transcended their industry and built up an enormous reservoir of audience goodwill by simply going about the business of making crowd-pleasing projects, not insulting us, and creating an appealing public persona. Off the top of my head, I would name Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

I’ve been very careful in this piece to focus on the film industry as opposed to “Hollywood” in general because it’s just a fact that entertainment for grown ups is not only flourishing on television, it’s enjoying a Golden Age unlike any during my lifetime. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, 24, Burn Notice, The Shield, Lost, etc. There’s almost too much worthwhile television to keep up with these days.

Some very smart and talented individuals have migrated to the small screen in order to tell mature, complicated stories with complex characters. The talent is out there. The movie industry just refuses to put it to work.

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