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The Dimming of Star Power in Hollywood

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Today's New York Times carried a revealing article titled "A-List Stars Flailing At The Box Office", which raises some pressing questions facing the movie business today.

Lo and behold, industry insiders are shocked (shocked!) and mightily troubled by the revelation that Hollywood's top stars are not opening films the way they used to.

Could it be that Denzel and Julia no longer merit guaranteed twenty million dollar paydays with every picture? And if so, what precisely has happened?

Here's my own theory: the buying public is not as stupid as Hollywood executives seem to believe. You can get away with feeding audiences substandard product propped up by big names for a while, but in the absence of quality and perceived value, the inevitable happens: you start gradually but inexorably to lose your audience.

This is about as old and basic a marketing rule as you can find, and what Hollywood sells is not immune from it. And a good thing too.

In the midst of all the West Coast hand-wringing, several other factors are floated about: foremost among them, that movies face more competition from other sources of entertainment, and that in light of this, movies are a less important part of most people's lives.

That's a bit of a cop-out, isn't it? I don't think you can blame technology for making movies less important. I think you must blame the movies themselves.

As critic A.O Scott recently attested, Hollywood is relying increasingly on tried and true, youth-targeted formula films to prop up their bottom lines.

Is this focus a sound long-term strategy? I doubt it.

It makes you think: no wonder movies seem less important- the ones Hollywood really pushes aren't even intended for anyone over 21!

And those releases that might appeal to a broader audience- many featuring those big buck names like Crowe, Hanks, and Sandler- are not working so well.

Another hard and fast rule of the film business: no star can prop up a fundamentally inferior vehicle, much less a string of them.

And in my albeit somewhat biased view, our current crop of box-office draws, by virtue of their relative magnetism, are even less equipped to do it than were their more modestly paid predecessors during Hollywood's Golden Age, and directly after.

This comparison only makes the ridiculous pay packages earned by today's top movie names all the more obscene.

If you objectively gauge today's actual on-screen star wattage to what existed in prior generations, and factor in relative compensation adjusted for inflation, you see clearly that the problem is out of hand.

Though I love movies old and new, and have the website to prove it, for me Cary Grant most always trumps George Clooney,  Brando in his prime outshines Sean Penn, and McQueen always seems more riveting on-screen than Brad Pitt, while Barbara Stanwyck most assuredly wins my vote over Julia Roberts.

But let's acknowledge that this view may be purely generational, or simply a matter of taste. Even if you believe today's star power burns as brightly as ever, the fact remains that the industry still pays its mega-stars many, many times what past generations have earned.

A conservative guess-timation would suggest that top star Clark Gable in the old studio system might have made about one-tenth of what Russell Crowe now takes in annually. As recently as the seventies, Paul Newman might have earned about a quarter of what Tom Cruise would receive today.

It's also worth noting that neither Gable nor Newman felt themselves badly used at the time- they both lived extremely well, and deserved to. But their pay-checks were more in line with the actual value they brought to the industry. (Actually, in the case of stars locked into studio contracts, you could make the argument they were under-valued.)

This perspective makes it clear that Hollywood needs to re-think their whole business strategy, and fast. Business as usual will no longer cut it.

I still believe the feature length film is potentially the most powerful popular medium we have. To re-capture its relevance, Hollywood will need to take more risks, make smaller, better films which appeal to a broader swath of the public, and on the cost side, dramatically re-adjust star salaries.

Those who don't accept it will risk being replaced by smart, talented up-and-comers who recognize the new reality.

Ultimately, the industry must take a longer view beyond next quarter's P&L, recognize that most of their output today is too safe, stale and familiar , and in response, put the focus back on making movies that reward their coveted viewers' time and attention.

Easier said than done, I know, but remember that Hollywood has been forced to reinvent itself before, most memorably in the late sixties and early seventies. Undoubtedly, with the right leadership, they can do it again.

Dramatically cutting top stars' inflated salaries is only a beginning- but a necessary one.

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