There are no more movie stars. No disrespect to Meryl and Julia and Brad and Angie, who come close. But the simple truth is there is no one who, solely by virtue of being in a film, guarantees that you will get up off your couch, stop watching your highly compelling television with nine hundred channels, turn off your computer and get to the theater. Clooney: you think, George Clooney -- but did you see The American? I didn't think so.
I blame TMZ and its reality show brethren, who have taken all the mystery out of celebrity. When people as innocuous as the Kardashian sisters and "The Real Housewives of Who Cares" can ascend to the pinnacle of fame simply by being willing to share their most embarrassing home videos with the rest of the world, well, the whole thing loses its charge, doesn't it? And when you can turn on your TV or log onto a website and track even the most mundane comings-and-goings of say, Jennifer Aniston, what's left to compel you to go see her in a movie on Friday night?
Why does it matter, you ask? Who cares?
Making movies is a highly speculative business and people are always trying to develop some algorithm to increase chances of success. And conventional wisdom has always said that putting big names in lead roles made it more likely to recoup investments and yield a profit. But the simple truth is: that's not really true anymore. People are going to see movies primarily for two reasons: one, they are events -- huge, epic monstrosities that you can't see on TV, at least not the way they are intended; and two, because they are good. Period. Think about Bridesmaids. Not a big name in the bunch. Sure, people have heard of Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne, but no one had ever come close to opening a film. Bridesmaids succeeded by word of mouth. People laughed themselves silly and were touched by the sweet humanity of its characters and told their friends and went back again and pushed a "women's comedy" to almost $300 million dollars in worldwide box office.
The studios seem to be responding to this shift by concentrating almost entirely on event movies -- enormous brands (Battleship, anyone?), sequels and remakes (Mission Impossibles 2-20), and mammoth books or cultural phenomena repackaged for cinematic consumption (The Help, The Hunger Games). This has created a vacuum, and an opportunity, in the marketplace for compelling adult stories, which is great news for independent filmmakers and production companies. Theater owners are going to need content to play on their screens -- counter -- programming, if you will. Hell, AMC Theaters and Regal Entertainment, two of the biggest names in movie theaters, are even starting a distribution company because they see a need.
Which brings me to my point. As an independent filmmaker, I am currently in the process of casting and financing a pair of smaller films -- a period drama and a high-concept comedy. In both cases, I am facing the pressure that all filmmakers face to focus on name value first and foremost. I get it, of course. Anyone spending millions of dollars wants to do everything in his or her power to increase the likelihood that a movie will reap a profit. But it no longer appears that packing your film with celebrities actually accomplishes that. One of the most successful independent films of last year, and eventual Oscar winner, The Artist, is a perfect example. A silent film starring a pair of French actors that no one in America had ever heard of went on to break $100 million in box office.
My point here is only this: we need a new algorithm. Simply convincing a big name celebrity to join your project is no longer the trump card it once was. We need to evaluate a project's viability on a whole series of other factors and put our money behind compelling stories and unique vision. We need to trust our audiences to come to the theater because they recognize something in their own humanity, because specificity creates universality. In movie-making, like pretty much every other business over the last decade, the paradigm has changed, and we must respond accordingly.