It's Not the Pictures That Got Small, It's the A-List

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

This weekend I watched Sunset Boulevard for like the 1,000th time, and it occurred to me that a lot of modern A-list actors have retreated to their own literal and figurative mansions, trying to ignore the fact that their stars are fading.

In the last year or two, we've seen stars fail to open movie after movie – big stars like Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Will Smith and Brad Pitt. Sure, in some cases they were just in bad or badly marketed movies – that's a problem of management; in other cases their more serious films might not have been easy to sell in the middle of a deep recession – that's just bad timing.

But I think there's more here than just that. I think stars have devalued their own brand, and a lot of it has to do with over-exposure.

Its not that stars are doing any more movies these days than they used to. It's just that we see them in so many places outside the movie theater…not just on chat shows, magazine covers and celeb tabloids and all over the web, but in ads for all of the above. In this era of modern, fast-as-electricity, that means 73,000,000 results when you google " Will Smith."

On top of that, stars are doing product ads that they would never have done in the past…can you see Katherine Hepburn selling cell phones like Catherine Zeta-Jones? And stars are even doing TV, for heaven's sake. I mean, it's understandable…TV, especially cable, is respectable and sometimes even great these days and the idea of a regular job close to home has got to be appealing.

But the result is that we can get enough of our stars without paying for a movie ticket. To make things worse, these days stars are often seen not as gods of the silver screen, but as mortals walking the earth, " just like us" as it says in Us Weekly, getting married, going to rehab, even buying a carton of milk. Uma Thurman putting her own bags in a cab in Soho…she's just like us! And who wants to pay $14.50 to see a mediocre movie starring someone who is just like us?

In the worst cases, stars have become so omnipresent, so, dare I say it, pedestrian, that they've become interchangeable with reality show stars, celebutantes, defrocked politicians and other disposable public figures.

So when the studios offer a star half their normal quote as they've been doing recently, and the star accepts, their agent will say its because of the recession. And that's true, but it's not the whole story. Even in recessionary times, if a star was bringing in the box office, they'd have a leg to stand on in contract negotiations, but given their reduced stature, they're hobbled.

So who are the movie stars now? Well, the studios are turning to franchise films where familiarity and special effects are the stars. Or inexpensive comedies featuring fresh new (inexpensive) faces. Or Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron.

As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, " They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!"

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman