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Will Smith Partially Nailed Why Hollywood Struggles to Create New Movie Stars These Days

It no longer qualifies as great insight to say that intellectual property (IP if you’re nasty) has replaced the movie star in the Hollywood ecosystem. The ongoing labor dispute between actors and producers was lost ages ago. Management won, despite those in the old guard who still insist on throwing money at Johnny Depp for vague China-still-loves-him reasons. The only way for a new star to be made these days is for a hot new someone to end up in not one but two massive franchises at the same time (think Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, Guardians and LEGO Movie, Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games and X-Men) while also exhibiting the type of personality which kills on social media. Others, you’re all replaceable because every franchise can be rebooted eventually.

I already did my thinkpiece on this in 2015 when Will Smith was out there peddling new age mantras while discussing his various box office failures. After Earth and Focus didn’t have to be judged as financial success or failures in his view because he had “completely released the concept of goal orientation and instead got into path orientation. This moment. This second. These people. This interaction.”

Here before us was a gazillionaire going through the type of spiritual and mental re-set which has been visited upon countless Americans by the Great Recession and its lingering effects. Smith was reaching for a deeper engagement with life and the world after forces outside of his control had rendered moot all of those old goals and ways of measuring success. The whole damn system had changed, and it was time to change with it.

So, Smith hitched his wagon to DC (Suicide Squad), reached for (yet epically failed to achieve) Oscar glory (Concussion, Collateral Damage) and turned into a cheerleader for new modes of distribution. He continues to publicly feud with others in the industry over his embrace of Netflix, the exclusive home of his next big budget movie, Bright. Adam Sandler jumping to Netflix is good riddance to old garbage. Will Smith doing it is a “hold on now” moment where the industry realizes one of its giants is jumping ship before he necessarily had to. Yet of his ongoing attempt to adjust to what audiences want by gravitating toward Netflix, Smith told reporters at Comic-Con last weekend, “I love trying to make that shift and that transition.”

As an established star, he has the luxury of getting to adjust. The new stars coming in have to make their own way in a system designed to de-emphasize them in favor of emphasizing the all-mighty IP. Smith doesn’t know that any of them will ever be able to breakthrough to movie stardom on the level he and those like him enjoyed throughout the 80s and 90s, and that’s partially down to mystery and access.

“It is such a new world. I released my first record in ‘86, so I’m over 30 years in the business. I’m seeing that transition of, essentially, the fans being more and more involved in the creative process. In terms of movie stardom, it’s a huge difference: You almost can’t make new movie stars anymore, right? There was a certain amount of privacy and distance that you had from the audience, and ‘only on July Fourth’ did you have access. That [limited] amount of access gave you a bigger-than-life kind of thing, but this shift into this new world is almost like a friendship with the fans. The relationship is less like the time that you could make Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise into these gigantic figures. You can’t create that anymore. The shift is to, ‘We’re best friends.’”

In other words, as soon as social media and the crunch of competition forced movie stars to behave more like flesh-and-blood people and less like idolized gods they lost a great deal of their earning power. For example, you can now love Chris Evans for his Captain America acting as well as his outspoken liberal views on Twitter and aw-shucks charm on podcasts like Anna Faris is Unqualified, but that won’t necessarily make you want to see him in Gifted.

There are various other economic forces and industry trends which have contributed to the decline of the modern movie star, but Smith’s not wrong here – the death of mystery is a contributing factor.

Of course, it’s all in how you measure it. The American movie star used to sell movie tickets on name recognition alone. Now they rack up huge Instagram, Twitter and Facebook followings, and still occasionally succeed in leveraging those followings into film attendance (think Kevin Hart and The Rock’s various social media outreach efforts, Dunkirk‘s Harry Styles bump). But our bullshit meter is higher than it used to be (thanks to RottenTomatoes and social media) and willingness to actually pay for entertainment lower than ever before (as seen in our collective embrace of streaming over film attendance or album/song purchases).

You can still become a celebrity who stars in movies and TV shows and probably makes serious bank from endorsement deals. You just can’t necessarily become a movie star the way we used to think of movie stars, not when brands have overtaken names and desperate-for-attention actors are out there providing unprecedented levels of access to their lives.

That is if you agree with Smith’s argument. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Source: Vulture


  1. Good article KK. So what you are saying in summary is thst being a movie star isnt what it used to be. You coukd go back further to ye old black and white movie stars who were seen as perfect until the first ever Hollywood scandal with Fattie Arbuckle which consequently showed the wlrld that mkvie stars were human and capable of bad things and in doing so damaged tbeir careers immediately. With social media this point is further emphasised. Stars have to be perfect 24/7 to survive and eberyone has a camera phone to film it or hack your pc and cloud content and you need to be interesting on twitter or its over just as quick as it begun. Whereas in the 90s it was only necessary to behave at interviews abd premiers and on set. What coke you did or henus sexual acts was irrelevant.

  2. I actually think that we are one step further from franchises being a big draw. Nowadays a well-known IP isn’t enough, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many movies based on IP’s failing…..I think the deciding factor is nowadays track record. Like, Nolan has such a good track record that a Nolan movie is practically some sort of IP. Disney and Pixar nearly always deliver when it comes to animation, so they have a pretty easy time to convince people to watch their movies, no matter if it is a sequel or an original (often the latter does even better than the former).

    No matter if a franchise, an actor, a director or even a character is the draw, people are nowadays looking for quality.

    Another factor is the visual level. People are more ready to spring money for a movie which they suspect will look way better on the big screen than at home, than doing the same thing for some movie which will consist mostly of dialogues in closed space.

    1. I am glad actors cant command big salaries any more. I still remember stallone and swartznegger and cruise and co commanding big bugs for mediocre movies all based on names. Cheesy and predictable because the actors pride came first. I like that actor can star in a film now and the script and direction carries the movie more. Look at vin disel depriving us of stathan/the rock time in ff8 becaue of his ego. I still remember when Speed came out and was perfect for its tine because Keanu reeves was an unknown action star. Wouldn’t have been as good with Bruce Willis commanding. Or beverly hilks cop if Stallone had said yes to it.

  3. This is a great argument. I think that everyone is so use to seeing the most well known actors. And If their not in it than people are going to less likely to watch a new TV show or movie. But if their favorite actor is in it that people will be more attracted to TV show. I think that social media helps with trying to expose new and upcoming talent. On platforms which as YouTube content creators can start off and build themselves up. Than as soon as you know it becoming a star. Being big on YouTube opens up the door for bigger opportunity for short TV commercials or Movies. I think how people can reach people with internet has evolved. People likes and dislikes has changed. Today, people have more knowledge and could create amazing technology than they have ever before.

    1. I think the limits of social media to actually get people to buy anything can be seen in the struggles of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Cara Delevingne has 40.5 million Instagram followers, Rihanna has 55.1 million. Doesn’t mean a damn thing, though. They can offer up parts of their lives for free to their adoring fans, but they can’t get them to buy a ticket to a bad movie very few people seem to like.

      That’s one of the big differences between then and now. Name recognition alone used to be all it took to get someone to buy a ticket. Now name recognition will get us to pay attention, but it won’t move the needle if the word of mouth sucks. Social media allows these people to cultivate an audience and build up a following, but it also allows all of us to quickly spread the word if a new movie, TV show, album, song or whatever is a waste of our time. That’s probably a change for the better, at least for anyone who’s old enough to remember the disappointment of sitting in a theater and realizing such-and-such actor had put out yet another shitty movie you’d mindlessly agreed to see.

      And a big part of this is the way we’re all being trained to not have to pay for entertainment. We don’t buy anything now; we pay for access to stream. We borrow parent’s HBO GO passwords. We watch people on YouTube, clueless as to how exactly they make their money.

      On the opposite side, as you pointed out, the ease of access on the creator’s end is such that the path to stardom is less impeded than ever before, and enterprising people are killing it on YouTube right now, sometimes by doing little more than opening boxes of toys or playing Minecraft for hours.

      1. I fully agree with your point KK and wonder where entertainment industry will go. I hear cinema will stream premium rentals 10 days after cinema release. If this is true then can see local cinemas shutting down with just a few remaining. The other theory is some premium netflix type subscription. Streans everything but have to pay big bucks subscription. Its how napster started. Illegal then legitit. In fact i think the music industry is a clear sign of things to come.

      2. That’s assuming Netflix continues its current run of domination. There’s some serious questions about their long-term health, though, especially with the staggering amount of long-term debt they are taking on to fund their surge in original programming.

  4. This is a great conversation question. It makes you thing about different ideas on how it how be improved. What is the answer. Are people changing as technology becomes more advance. I enjoyed reading this. I would like for you to check my blog out. THANKS!

  5. You’ve really summed that up well. I think, in a way it feels like a melancholy transition, in the nostalgic scope of how we picture movie stars and stardom itself; all very thought provoking.

    1. Our view of movie stars is ever-evolving. How we thought of the megastars of the 90s certainly differed from how we viewed the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s been a gradual case of the wall between us and them slowly coming down and bullshit artifice giving way to naked honesty, but in the process the star system has been defanged as any kind of reliable economic force, save for the ability of the big names of the 90s to still sell some movie tickets overseas.

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