Why has Hollywood stopped making 'stars'?
In the days and weeks following the Oscars, you'd have been forgiven for thinking the Hollywood star factory had secretly been shut down for re-tooling and opened up as a paperweight emporium.
"Where are all the movie stars?" various think pieces howled, pointing at the shuffle of turnip truck rejects and animated laundry baskets that had been paraded before the world as part of Hollywood's Night of Nights.
Sure, most of these dim and faded copies of the real stars of Hollywood's golden age - you remember, like Peter Lawford and Jayne Mansfield - had actually appeared in movies, therefore fulfilling the minimum technical requirements for qualifying as "movie stars". But we all know what was meant.
These youngsters (*cough Zac Efron Jessica Biel cough*) lacked the gravitas, the charisma, the effortless charm of the real deal; what's the point of movies if they don't have stars in them?
Part of the problem is that it's a bit tricky getting the stars of today's big movies to appear on stage to present an award, what with them being a warehouse full of computers.
Yes, since the dawn of movies the big draw as far as getting people into the movies has been technological innovation: in-camera special effects, sound, colour, making Vin Diesel look like he actually wants to kiss a woman. But in contrast to 20 years ago, increasingly the point of movies today is to show the audience amazing things they've never seen before. People? You can see a bunch of them just by turning on your television.
Oh, that's right: all the good dramatic work these days is being done on television. You want to be an actor who gets to sink their teeth into a character?
The small screen is the place to be seen, and has been for a decade or more. But as for making those television actors into "stars"... well, there's a whole bunch of reasons why that doesn't seem to happen. Maybe television is watched inside the home, making the people on it less remote and more approachable; maybe people on television are just displayed smaller than life while those on a movie screen are bigger.
Maybe being interrupted every seven minutes for a commercial for laxatives makes it hard to generate gravitas. Maybe television has Charlie Sheen on it.
Pretty much the only thing television can't do these days is pack two hundred million dollars worth of special effects into ninety minutes, and again we're back to the movies becoming more and more about effects.
This hasn't exactly sidelined actors entirely, but who were the real stars of Gravity? Sandra Bullock and George Clooney - a duo that's about as close as you can get to Hollywood royalty these days? Or all those 3D chunks of space debris tearing apart everything in their path? And why didn't the Oscars get them to present an award? Or even just use them to get award winners off the stage when their speeches ran long?
Actors do still have one perk over the special effects: the effects don't get their names on the posters. The downside there is that often their names are used merely as signposts to guide audiences as to what kind of massive special effects they can expect to see on screen.
If a movie stars Tom Cruise, we can expect futuristic war machines; if it stars Will Smith, we can expect aliens with maybe some war machines mixed in. Mark Wahlberg? Alien war machines.
And with Hollywood throwing all their cash at big special effects-heavy movies, where are the next generation of movie stars meant to come from? It's hard to impress audiences with your rendition of tortured humanity when half the movie involves you pointing up at the sky then shouting "Run, it's going to use us as toilet paper".
It's hardly surprising that most of the breakout stars of the last few years - Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart - have come from adapting young adult novels where characters are more important than action; after all, in a novel "then the spaceship exploded" is usually a less interesting phrase to read than "then she stared getting it on with her hot teacher."
Today Hollywood is running a hollowed-out business model where the only films that get made are nine-figure budgeted blockbusters or four figure budgeted indy productions. Guess which one is the best way to turn actors into stars?
If you said "neither", go get yourself an ice cream out of the fridge: the mid-range movies - you know, the ones that had to rely on story and acting to keep people interested - are exactly the kind of films that aren't being made, and without them? No star is born.
At least with the indie productions there's a slight chance your performance might attract some attention; most superhero franchises are so focused on the costumes rather than the actors wearing them that constant speculation on when and if someone new will take over has become the norm.
Which is exactly how the major corporations who own the copyright on these characters want it: turning no-name actors into stars is the exact opposite of good business for them. Stars can go off and make other movies whereas Superman or Captain America is theirs forever. They're still making (not very good) movies about The Lone Ranger and John Carter of Mars; no-one's been making any serious money off Douglas Fairbanks for a while now.
Thing is, all these factors are relatively new factors: up until, say, 15 years ago the number one sure-fire way to get audiences to see your movie was still to put a star in it. Which means that while there's a star shortage down the youth end of the pool today, up the other end it's starting to get a little crowded with all those name brand actors the current movie system no longer needs.
Franchises like the Red movies and The Expendables are built almost entirely on "check out all these big names we've gathered in the one place... and then given guns to, because quite frankly even with this many stars in the one place we doubt anyone is going to watch this movie unless we blow some shit up."
Here's two words to chill the blood: Last Vegas. We live in a world where star power is so devalued movie-makers can get a bunch of A-grade acting talents to appear in a film where they get to judge a wet t-shirt contest and then Redfoo thrusts his speedo-clad crotch in their faces. You know why there are no movie stars today? Because when you see that waiting for you at the end of your career, suddenly getting a job running the local internet café seems like a step up.
We don't have movie stars today because we don't need them like we used to. And as soon as someone puts together a successful all CGI-animated movie for adults, we won't need them at all. Just like every other form of creative activity out there, computers will eventually devalue their work to such an extent that the "stars" of the future will be wannabes giving away their facial expressions and physical gestures for free just for the chance to see a part of themselves appear fleetingly on the big screen. Tomorrow's Oscar host will be millions of lines of code running in a computer somewhere.
And if that doesn't work, there's always Harrison Ford.