What Happened to Movie Stars?
It’s a fairly well-known fact that movie stars are no longer the primary catalyst behind a film’s box office success like they have been in previous decades. Gone are the days of people like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or even Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks being able to open an original, non-franchise movie on their own. Nowadays—in the era of superheroes, sequels, and reboots—movie studios are more reliant on franchises and IP-driven content. Due to advancements in home entertainment, streaming, and a hoard of other things, it’s harder now to get people to show up to a movie theater than it used to be. When people do show up to the theater, they show up for Captain America and Thor, not Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth. Even someone as popular as The Rock struggles to bring in an audience in many of his non-Fast-and-the-Furious films. Therefore, studios are less willing to spend money on unproven, original ideas and more willing to spend money on brands and franchises that moviegoers are familiar with. That part of the Hollywood story is easy enough to understand. But the question still remains, what happened to movie stars?
This question becomes even more interesting when you consider the current entertainment landscape in America. I’d argue that, at no point in our history, has our national obsession with celebrity been more prevalent throughout our culture. We love examining, celebrating, and criticizing celebrities in this country. Reality television has never been more popular, we listen to multiple-hour podcasts of our favorite celebrities talking, Tonight Show clips of Jimmy Fallon playing Pictionary with famous people get millions of views, and fans now have greater access to the lives of their favorite celebrities through platforms like Twitter and Instagram. So, how is it that as our national interest in celebrity is exploding, movie stars seem to be dying? Well, I happen to think the two are directly related.
The internet-celebrity era that we are currently living in, has had a negative impact on a movie star’s ability to draw box office success. The best way for me to explain this idea is by providing a hypothetical. If a kid in the 1990s was obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, they only had a few different outlets available for them to access Leo-related content. His films would obviously be the main one. Other than that—since the internet wasn’t what it is today—they could maybe catch him during a talk show appearance or an award show telecast, but that was pretty much it. Therefore, it would kind-of make sense for a girl in 1997, who loved DiCaprio, to see Titanic five times in the theater. Now, let’s fast-forward to today. When a kid, or anyone really, wants to see their favorite movie star they no longer have to just wait until their next movie comes out like they would have in the ’80s or ’90s. Instead, they can go to their Twitter and read what they have to say, go to their Instagram and look at what they’ve been up to, then go to Youtube and watch hours of interviews, behind the scenes content, bloopers, etc. Since we used Leonardo DiCaprio as an example for the ’90s, let’s use Timothée Chalamet as an example for today. Even if a kid loves Chalamet, there is not the same urgency for them to show up to see Dune or The French Dispath today, as there was for kids to show up to Titanic for Leo. The barrier between celebrity and audience has been broken down by the internet and social media. A Chalamet fan may be more interested in just watching his interview clips online for free, than spending $15 on a ticket to see Dune during opening weekend.
It’s also important to note that the idea of celebrity has changed greatly over the last ten to twenty years. Think about it, the “overnight celebrity” is now a legitimate possibility with user-generated platforms like Youtube and TikTok being available to everyone. I honestly don’t think many parents around the world understand the power that a platform like Youtube has on their children. As someone in their early-20s who grew up around the initial wave of Youtube celebrities like Bo Burnham, I don’t even fully understand that world today. And admittedly, as I have no kids and do not really watch Youtubers or TikTok videos, I’m probably not the most qualified person to speak on this. But, I have caught glimpses of what certain Youtubers, like the Paul brothers, content looks like just by being a person who exists in today’s culture. What I’ve learned, is there are seemingly no boundaries when it comes to the forms of content that today’s Youtubers make. It’s understandable to me why less kids would dream of being just a musician, just an actor, just a comedian, or just an athlete when they can dream of being a YouTuber. I say that because today’s Youtubers exist in so many different worlds. They make music, they make vlogs (the internet’s version of reality television), they make “comedy” sketch videos, they act in both online and traditional television shows, and in the case of someone like Logan Paul, they fight in boxing matches that people seem to watch for some reason. More importantly to my “celebrity vs. movie star” discussion, they pump out daily content and they create brands revolved around their “real-lives” and their personalities. Celebrity today is all about authenticity and access. That’s why so many long-form interview podcasts have become so popular. We no longer want to just see our favorite famous people in a movie—we want an inside look into what they do, how they think, and who they are.
Reality television and late-night talk shows are two of the best examples of our obsession with the “real-lives” of celebrities. As I hinted at earlier, people are seemingly more interested in watching actors play a game or tell a story on The Tonight Show, than they are in seeing those actors in a movie. People are also just interested in getting a view into the life of someone like Kim Kardashian, regardless of how uninteresting that view ultimately is. Shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians are captivating for fans, not because anything happening on screen is actually interesting, but because they get to watch famous people. That’s the world we live in today. The product, or the talent, or the reason for being famous is not as important as just the idea of possessing fame. Similarly, the press-tour and the interviews for the movie are often more memorable for people than the movie itself.
So, are movie stars really dead? Despite the title of this blog, I think that’s a question with a complicated answer. I’d argue that there are obviously still movie stars, but the definition of that term has changed over time. Nowadays, “movie stars” seem to be thriving everywhere (talk shows, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter), except for at the actual movie theater. I don’t really see this changing anytime soon either. Studios and theater owners are going to continue struggling to get people to come to the cinema, and access to celebrity due to the internet is going to continue diminishing the need for people to see their favorite stars on the big screen. That’s just the evolution of things, and that’s how celebrity has killed, or changed, the idea of a movie star.