As a filmmaker and now an actor I have spent too much of my adult life dissecting the merits of having known actors with "baggage," aka celebrities in films. As I simultaneously spent the vast majority of my 20's situated behind the proverbial "curtain," while developing a film-o-graphy with several known actors, I came to a place where I was able to objectively understand the cult of celebrity as a pervasive influence on our lives. Was I really enhancing my canvas with a known quantity that was adding inherent value to my film negative or was I polluting artwork, and by extension its message, with a celebrity whose presence in the film was more important than the film itself?
The concept of the "movie star" that "anchors" a film is and always has been a marketing tool created and perpetuated by the studios/distributors. The "stars," with a few exceptions, have been interchangeable and their perceived stardom manufactured and destroyed at a moments notice. The paradigm shift we are seeing at the moment culturally is due to the plethora of information to which the Internet gives us access. A "marketing hook" is no longer enough to insure an audience will buy a product; the product has to deliver as well and, hopefully, organically build a community around it. However, while the ubiquitous Swiss Army Knife movie star is over, the "movie star" itself is not dead, but rather evolving slowly into "branded personalities/actors" whose personality and worldview speak to a specific subsection of the population and thus empower these performers to deliver that specific audience to the right project with relative consistency.
The First Movie Star
The film industry in the early 1900's bore little resemblance to the star-centered commercial enterprise of the 1980's and 1990's. Actors were intentionally kept anonymous from the public in fear that they would demand higher wages. Florence Lawrence, employed by Biograph Studios, was known to the public as "The Biograph Girl." Film producer named Carl Laemmle using print media, publicized personal appearances, and a number of other innovative strategies began publicizing her and she quickly became the first movie star. The take away here is that the first movie star wasn't created by film, but was created by the growth of print media.
The Hollywood Star System
The commoditization of actors began with the advent of the "star system" where major studios, after signing actors to multi-year exclusive contracts, would manufacture fame to build "brand loyalty" around that actor. Rumors were planted, real or fictitious, biographical information was selectively released to the press, and used other "gimmicks" to create glamorous personas for actors. Much like Proctor & Gamble positions its plethora of brands to the public, publicists "created" the "enduring images" and public perceptions of screen legends such as Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly.
The 80's, 90's, & The Movie Star as America's Greatest Export
In the 80's and 90's as the American empire reached the height of its influence and rapid innovation in communication technologies gave rise to globalization the American movie star became a global commodity. Movie stars in this era were far removed from the archaic multi year studio contracts and were left to manage their own brands. Fueled by worldwide urban masses, the global mega star was born and the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, and many more became America's greatest cultural export.
The Changing Paradigm of Celebrity
Today we are also seeing a fragmentation in the concept of the celebrity, a social construct that in its inception went hand-in-hand with movie stardom. Today celebrity has branched off into its own category. The by product of Paris Hilton giving birth to Kim Kardasiahn has been a clear cultural delineation between fame and talent and has thus re-positioned the inconsequential vapid celebrity as a mere off shoot of fame. The bottom line: Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbach, and Jeremy Renner are examples of extraordinary actors and modern leading men whose rise to stardom wouldn't have been possible in a world where celebrity and acting were intertwined. These above mentioned men are famous actors that lend credibility to projects, not celebrities in the modern definition of the word. More importantly, their career longevity is not tied to their celebrity.
The Irony of Fame
The irony of fame is it's an illusion that's spawned side industries which are a by product of a simple flaw in our species biological programming. The flaw is simple, when we see a moving image our neanderthal minds are unable to differentiate that the emotional connection we share with that moving image is not reciprocated by that image. Thus, when a famous person enters an environment the individuals in that environment neurologically and physically react to said famous person's presence in the same manner they would had they ran into a best friend unexpectedly.
Valueless Celebrity PR
Celebrity at its inception was strategically created to generate effortless PR value for projects. For the avoidance of doubt PR value here is defined as press pertaining to a project rather than a specific individual. It is the reason actors are forced to promote their movies. The concept was that anything these individuals did was newsworthy, and as such their projects by extension would become newsworthy. However, with the plethora of information today's incarnation of our species has access to at any given moment, PR value and name recognition in a vacuum no longer directly drives movie sales. Gossip magazines, by way of example, sell gossip but no matter how juicy the gossip it generally doesn't sell a product outside of the magazine. Today celebrity PR is effective at promoting that celebrity or building that celebrity's brand but that doesn't automatically extend to that celebrity's next venture becoming newsworthy.
Niche markets & The Rise of VOD
Movies have lost their place as the zenith of artistic expression. We don't have ubiquitous celebrities who "open movies" but we have niche acts or "branded actors" who can deliver an audience in the right vehicle (Examples: Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, Liam Neeson in The Grey, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Jason Statham in Transporter).
With the PR value of celebrity proving to have little impact on ticket sales, movie marketing is due for a massive overhaul. Marketing "to" but not "at" an audience is crucial. The fundamental flaw in movie marketing is that it is both very costly and inefficient at matching a movie with its target audience. The next paradigm shift will come when marketing companies are able to effectively and efficiently match content with the perfect consumer - just like Netflix does whenever you log on, thereby reducing promotion costs for a film. In this next era, highly targeted, ultra specific, niche content will rule the marketplace.
Fame vs Stardom
This paradigm shift in celebrity and it's relationship to PR has redefined stardom. A contestant on American Idol is famous. A wrestler for WWE is famous. Any professional sports player is famous. However, fame does not make one a "star." Stardom is the intrinsic ability to take fame and parlay that into an emotional connection with the audience which causes the audience to follow said star's exploits outside of that star's specific niche. A "branded actor," has stardom in his or her own niche (like Jason Statham in an action thriller) but true stardom transcends one's niche.
What is True Stardom and why is it Dangerous?
As a species we are lost in a sea of information. Social media gives us access to more people in an hour than previous generations had in a lifetime, yet somehow the consensus is that we as a species feel disconnected and alone today more so than ever before. It is for this reason that we use brands to connect with one another and define ourselves (think of the Apple users). As we become increasingly interconnected we will more and more use brands as lynchpins to form niche communities. As a society we will look to brands to give us a sense of identity. Thus, if a brand is ubiquitous it by definition lacks the specificity necessary to develop a niche devout community.
By extension, true stardom means having celebrity, being a branded actor, and having fame. However, true stardom is dangerous because branding is about specificity. Strong brands have limited awareness but great engagement and consumer loyalty while weak brands have wide reaching awareness but trigger little emotional response from consumers. Ubiquitous stardom risks transforming the actor into the personality equivalent of GE or Coke, but unable to trigger an emotional response in consumers.
Thus, niche acts are strategically better positioned to organically grow, maintain, and monetize their fan bases.
The Future of Stardom
In the future stardom or "engagement" will be highly personalized and heavily tracked. The common denominator of the internet is that it has eliminated middlemen across industries, and entertainment will be no different. Branded actors, celebrities, and even the rare ubiquitous star will be able to track their audience and their levels of engagement directly though several yet to be created platforms. The bottom line: today Orlando Bloom is a bonafide celebrity and borderline house hold name and due to a lack of credibility as a legitimate actor is unable to parlay (read: monetize) fame into a film or television career yet game enthusiast PewdiePie has a measurable audience of 36.2 million on YouTube and reportedly earned $7 million USD in 2013. The future will render the Blooms of the world extinct.