Tom Jolliffe looks at whether the days of the superstar headliner are disappearing with audiences more drawn to franchises or film concepts than the stars attached…
You could say it started in Hollywood’s classic era. The movie star. The big name. They were in some ways manufactured, or at least their image was. Rock Hudson for example, a granite carved poster boy for masculinity, was hiding the fact he was gay (which was virtually sacrilege in those days). People would flock in masses to see particular stars in action, whether it was Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, James Cagney, or the female starlets of the age, Katherine Hepburn, or a little later an icon like Marilyn Monroe.
There was a lull when the appeal of that studio led golden age was disappearing, and to an extent, the stars with it (lets face it, historically, ageing stars have perennially lost appeal heading into their 50’s and more). Studios were like football teams. They had a squad of talent signed, and attached to their roster. The late 60’s saw a shift in the thinking. It became a director’s era. They broke rules, pushed boundaries, and between 1965 and 75, Hollywood produced it’s greatest period in terms of content. That in turn saw the rise of a new line of stars like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Still, films, even the blockbusters, were becoming a huge success without big names. Star Wars, starred Alec Guinness in support, who wasn’t a Hollywood star name by any stretch, whilst the remainder of the cast were young upstarts like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and a certain Harrison Ford. Jaws was similar, led by a perennial supporting actor, Roy Scheider, and supported by a young Richard Dreyfuss (the veteran was Robert Shaw, more character actor than leading light). It scored big. Rocky was a huge hit which launched Sylvester Stallone. He had to fight tooth and nail to keep a part he’d written for himself, when studios wanted bigger names in the part.
The 80’s became a superstar era again. Films bankrolled off big names, and often for big money. It got to a point leading into the 90’s where it almost didn’t matter what you put them in, studios would green light it. That of course led to a lot of duds here and there, but for a time Hollywood was obsessed with superstars again. Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks and more.
Nowadays audiences are less loyal to their favourites. It’s less the stars attracting them to the big screen, and more the content, whether they’re part of a franchise or not. It’s why a once-megastar like Schwarzenegger, in his 70’s now, can only get the green light on a Terminator film, or small scale films that head more or less straight to video. There’s almost nothing in between. Stallone is similar, maintaining his cinematic presence by re-appearing as Rocky Balboa in the Creed films, and trying to scrape more interest out of the Rambo and Expendables franchises.
What we’ve seen progressively happen over the last ten years is the audience shift toward franchise and adaptation. Marvel, Star Wars, remakes, reboots. This is where the money lies largely, but in turn as we’ve seen from hits like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out, representation is beginning to matter more. Maybe it always has but perhaps the studios are getting wiser to it now. The fact is, these films don’t have the huge A-list names. It’ll certainly boost the profiles of all involved massively of course, and see them attain beefy pay days, but I think the days of people like Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. being deemed essential to a sequels success (to the point they get gargantuan levels of money) are gone. For now anyway.
One of the last bastions of the guaranteed money spinning superstars, Dwayne Johnson was hitting homers, left, right and centre until studios got greedy and over saturated their market with Johnson. Lets face it, we all like Johnson but too much Johnson is not good (erm…). As a result after a string of successful films (not least last Christmas season’s Jumanji reboot) a fatigued audience stayed at home rather than see a tired Die Hard ripoff entitled Skyscraper. No one is bulletproof. Keanu Reeves has the almost iconic John Wick franchise, but can anyone easily name another film he’s made in the last 5 years? Not that easy, as the majority head straight to video. Audiences love him as Wick, but that’s it these days.
Some actors become synonymous with a role, to the extent that imagining anyone else in the part is difficult. That could be Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The fact is though, if the studios deem said characters to have an extended shelf-life, they’re not adverse to rebooting. When Tobey Maguire had chalked up two huge hits in the opening two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, he seemed an almost perfect incarnation of Peter Parker. Granted he wasn’t as iconically etched as a finite image as Jackman’s Logan, but it took the haphazard Spider-Man 3 to ensure audiences were more accepting of a new Parker (first Andrew Garfield, and more recently, Tom Holland). A new Wolverine would bring a lot of huff and puff from some corners, but it would be short lived, particularly if the new incarnation proved successful (critically and commercially).
As we get close to the end of a new decade, the next cycle of film tastes will be interesting. Will we see a continued fascination with franchises? Will we move back to another era where stars rule the cinema? Where a name can almost guarantee you a big return if they keep to the formula that works for them. If you look at the landscape now, the biggest names in the industry, those getting the biggest paychecks, are those who have been established for over a decade at least. Which rising young stars might become the next Tom Cruise or Will Smith? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.