Alarming disconnect between moviegoers, celebs

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Controversial celebs: The disconnect between moviegoers and celebrities was hammered home with "Georgia Rule's" boxoffice fizzle last weekend despite tabloid media "it" girl Lindsay Lohan being one of its stars.

Despite the unending coverage lavished on celebs like Lohan in weekly gossip magazines, consumer newspapers, Internet sites and syndicated tabloid TV shows covering "entertainment," it just doesn't translate into ticket sales. In the case of "Georgia," the film's $6.8 million opening put it in third place with a disappointing $2,685 average per theater.

Lohan's as "hot" as celebs get these days, although she's slightly overshadowed in the headlines right now by slammer-bound Paris Hilton. Nonetheless, Lohan's celebrity status didn't help "Georgia" rule the boxoffice -- and, remember, this was the movie she was shooting when Morgan Creek Prods. chairman & CEO James G. Robinson sent her a no-nonsense headline making letter complaining that her "actions on 'George Rule' have been discourteous, irresponsible and unprofessional" and warning that if she didn't cut back on partying and start showing up to work on the film "we will hold you personally accountable."

While Lohan's a good example of how audiences can be cool to celebs when it comes to buying movie tickets, she's just one of a pack of celebs who aren't as hot at the boxoffice as they are in the media. A good case in point is Mel Gibson, whose "Apocalypto" wound up grossing only about $51 million domestically following his drunk driving arrest in Malibu and his anti-Semitic tirade at the arresting deputy. The fact is that moviegoers don't seem to care very much about headline "heat" when it comes to laying out cool cash for movie tickets. In fact, what celebs have done to generate those tabloid headlines can sometimes be a real turn-off to moviegoers.

It's a big difference from the way audiences used to respond to stars. From Hollywood's earliest days through the industry's Golden Age that ended with the advent of television in the early '50s and the crumbling of the studio system, stars were a magnet for audiences. In their heyday the studios' publicity departments manufactured stars, teaching them how to work with and use the media to promote their movies.

The extensive in-house publicity departments that the studios maintained in the '30s and '40s were expert at building each star's audience appeal. The studios all had publicists who were responsible for handling the stars' fan clubs and there were ongoing efforts to keep those fans happy by providing them with autographed photos, special fan club newsletters and other personalized merchandise about their favorites.

The studios were also very adept at controlling the media in those days. Access to the stars and the films they were making was only possible through their studio handlers. Media people who got out of line found themselves cut off and, essentially, were no longer able to do their jobs. Damage control was part of what studios did for their stars. When studios needed to suppress a story about, for example, an actor's drinking problems or an actress's marital indiscretions it wasn't hard to do. And for the most part studios could manage things when their stars got in trouble with the law. It could cost a few dollars to fix things, but they were usually fixable. In the end, the stars maintained their good images and the public continued to love them and buy tickets to their movies.

None of that is true today. We're living in an entirely new media world and in the age of the Internet nothing spreads faster and finds a more appreciative audience than bad news about rich, famous, spoiled celebrities who crave the limelight. The public seems to like nothing more these days than to read or see the worst imaginable news about people like Lohan, Hilton, Britney Spears, Nicole Richie and others who are grist for the tabloids' mill. Leaving aside for now whether this is deserved or not and whether or not it's their own fault, the problem is that when the celebs are in movies they're not generating publicity that sells tickets. The tabloid print and TV media aren't covering movies, they're covering the private lives of people who in some cases make movies and in other cases, like Paris Hilton, are only famous for being famous.

It's helpful to understand the historical connection between Hollywood and its stars in order to understand how significantly things have changed over the past few years. If we go back to the film industry's early days, what we find is that until late 1909 the people seen on the screen were not identified and the public, therefore, didn't know who they were. However, since the same performers appeared over and over in movies made by the fledgling studios they started to become known by descriptive labels like "the Biograph Girl" or "the Vitagraph Girl."

Part of the reason for the lack of identification was that at the time movie acting wasn't considered a very high-class thing for actors to do. The perception was that people who acted in movies did so because they weren't good enough to find jobs to work on the stage or because they really needed money and were willing to stoop that low to get it. It also reflected to some extent the fact that the early film producers didn't want to wind up paying film actors big salaries the way that stage actors had already managed to demand of theater producers. Moreover, in those very early days being a movie actor just wasn't the big deal that it now is. In fact, performers at the time often helped out by painting sets or sewing costumes when they weren't working in front of the cameras.

That early anonymity disappeared once the public became interested in some of these players and decided it wanted to see more of them. Nickelodeon owners who booked the short films that were being made at the time -- these were one reel movies that were only nine or 10 minutes long -- started to specify that they wanted more films with certain performers -- like "the young girl with blonde curls" or "the big fat funny guy." Moviegoers may not have known their names, but the film companies certainly knew who they were.

Movies were produced extremely quickly at the time. In fact, they were frequently made in the course of just one day. They were shown in 8,000 to 10,000 nickelodeons across the country, which ran programs that lasted 20 minutes to an hour. The program of films shown was changed daily, which meant that when the public responded to those anonymous stars the studios knew who to hire to appear in the next batch of films. And they were able to get those movies into release right away so as to capitalize on the public's affection for those stars.

By 1910 stars began to emerge from the shadows of anonymity as the public started writing the studios asking who the people in their movies were and requesting information about them. One key reason for the public's sudden appetite for details about movie stars was the emergence at this time of newspaper columns about movies. The media of the time was the driving force then as it is today in building interest in stars. In early 1910 "the Biograph Girl" was identified as Florence Lawrence. In May 1910 the public was told that "the Vitagraph Girl" was Florence Turner.

When Florence Lawrence was the subject of an untrue newspaper report in early 1910 that she had died in an accident in New York the impact it had on moviegoers made it clear that they cared very much about these strangers that they were now watching on movie screens. In late March 1910 Lawrence visited St. Louis to make what may have been the very first public appearance by a movie star. She reportedly drew large crowds of fans who were eager to see her in person.

The twists and turns that led to the emergence of movie stars could fill a book, but suffice it to say here that those early movie moguls who had some contact with the public because they started out by running nickelodeons realized it was in their interest to let performers' identities become known and then to promote them as stars because that would get people to come see their movies. They also understood that audiences would return to see every movie their favorite stars did because these early stars were always playing the same kind of roles in all their films. If you liked them in one movie you'd like them in every movie they made. The first mogul to catch on to this concept is believed to have been Carl Laemmle, a former clothing salesman from Oshkosh, Wisconsin who founded what later became Universal Pictures.

By late 1910 studios were sending fans autographed photos of movie stars. At about the same time Vitagraph began publishing what was probably the first fan magazine, The Motion Picture Story Magazine. Although it started out by covering only Vitagraph movies, it later focused on films from other companies so as to make its link to Vitagraph less obvious. By 1912 a number of independent fan magazines were being published and the movie stars they were writing about were clearly here to stay.

When Adolph Zukor founded his Famous Players Co. (which evolved into Paramount Pictures) in July 1912 it was clear from its slogan -- "Famous Players in Famous Plays" -- that movie stars were now a very important part of the Hollywood equation and so was good literary material. Films had started to get longer by 1912 and, therefore, needed better stories to tell. The early one-reelers were too short to require elaborate stories, but they were being replaced by two and three-reelers with running times of 20 to 30 minutes. There also were even longer films like the four-reel 1911 French drama "Queen Elizabeth" starring Sarah Bernhardt, which Zukor imported. Stars became more important to the studios as they began making longer films that represented larger financial investments and, therefore, had to resonate with the public.

This resulted in the studios realizing it made sense to pay big money to attract and keep the stars they now needed to guarantee the success of their movies. The amounts paid were huge for their day and they went up rapidly. In 1912, for example, Zukor was paying Mary Pickford $500 a week. This doubled to $1,000 a week in early 1914 and went to $2,000 a week by November 1914. Pickford was getting $4,000 per week in March 1915. By mid-1916 Zukor was paying her $10,000 per week. By 1917 when Pickford was at First National she was making $350,000 per picture -- and we're talking about 1917 dollars not 2007 dollars!

As stars became Hollywood's best way of selling movies to the public, studios began competing to attract stars and, in fact, when possible to steal them away from one another. Bigger and bigger paychecks became the way in which they wagered this war. Not only did the early studios pay big money for stars, but they also began setting some of them up with percentages of the profits from their movies and even establishing their own production companies.

Looking back it's clear that 90 years ago when Hollywood was still in its infancy stars were already established as a great way for studios to attract moviegoers. What was different then was that these stars were of interest to the public and to the media because of their work on the screen not because of what was going on in their private lives. The fan magazines wrote about the stars in the context of the films they were making. The name of the game was to promote their movies and to get people to buy tickets.

Today, unfortunately, the media's interest is not in selling movie tickets but in selling magazines or newspapers or getting big TV ratings or achieving millions of Internet clicks by focusing on the tormented personal lives of the people starring in them. The tabloid TV shows that purport to cover movies don't really cover movies. They cover celebrities marching down red carpets at awards shows or premieres. They focus on celebs who are shopping or dining out or adopting children or taking their kids somewhere or sunbathing topless on some beach or checking themselves in and out of rehab.

This type of coverage doesn't make people want to see the movies these stars are in because the movies are only incidental to the coverage. Frequently, the coverage has nothing at all to do with movies. Years ago you'd see film clips on TV shows that would at least give you some idea of whether you'd enjoy seeing a new movie. Now you mostly see footage of stars and their entourages getting into cars outside restaurants and speeding away from the paparazzi who are desperate to photograph them.

Worse yet, some of today's biggest stars equate their stardom with the freedom to advocate political, social, moral and religious points of view because they have such easy access to global media attention. By promoting their personal views, however, they risk alienating moviegoers around the world who have opposing views on the same controversial subjects. Increasingly, this is becoming a key issue for the studios. In the past, stars had favorite colors and favorite foods and, perhaps, favorite restaurants, but they never spoke about their favorite politicians or social causes. It was just part of the price they paid for being movie stars.

It's an entirely different world today and stars are no longer as valuable a ticket selling tool as they were in, say, 1917. Marketing has to a great extent replaced stars as the principal mechanism driving ticket sales today. Through marketing campaigns that are now more expensive than what it once cost to make a movie, studios can target the demographic quadrant that their research tells them is the core group to whom a film will appeal. The public's reasons for being attracted to a movie vary, but stars are now just one reason to see a film and not necessarily the most important reason.

Not surprisingly, in this age of technology CGI special effects have soared in terms of their importance to moviegoers and 3-D and IMAX exhibition are becoming important factors, too. Brand name franchises are must-see movies for most moviegoers these days. High profile filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are big selling points for the films they make. Comic book roots are key elements in the success of franchises like "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "Batman." And the type of movie is all it takes to get some people to buy tickets. For instance, people who like horror films don't necessarily care who's starring in them as long as their marketing campaigns make them look really scary. Years ago it was a major selling point to have Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi starring in a new horror film. Today it's the story and the effects and the marketing that seem to matter most.

That's not to say that stars don't matter at all today. There still are some big name stars who do make a difference at the boxoffice -- people like Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and George Clooney, none of whom are out there making terrible tabloid headlines. Moviegoers still like them and go to see their movies. But for many others there could be problems ahead if Hollywood starts to pay more attention to the disconnect between moviegoers and celebs.

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From June 15, 1989's column: "Paramount's 'Star Trek V' opening weekend gross of $17.4 million and it's A- grade in Ed Mintz's CinemaScore research makes it one of the best openings ever for a first-time feature director.

"William Shatner, to whom that honor goes, was my guest recently on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series. In our conversation he spoke candidly about the gossip regarding 'V' that circulated locally for months before it opened.

"The doomsayers began sniping at 'V' after an early recruited screening of a work-in-progress print that didn't play well because it lacked special effects. 'A (movie) preview is designed like a play goes out of town to see how it's working,' Shatner observes. 'Invariably, the creative team has made some wrong guesses. Sometimes very wrong -- like a bad third act -- and sometimes a line will get a laugh where you don't intend it to get a laugh and you alter the line.

"'We only had 18 weeks in postproduction. Most films of this type have a year. Most ordinary films have 25 or 26 weeks. So we were on a very, very limited postproduction schedule. You can see what's happening (in the marketplace) between last week and next week and the following week. We had to open (June 9) or else we were in dire trouble.'

"Why was the ill-fated preview held? 'We needed to preview the film to see how the written words were doing,' he explains. 'We had in place of all these special effects what we call animatics.' Shatner picks up a pyramid shaped object from an end-table on the set and moves it slowly across the camera's field of vision. 'A goes like this with a spaceship and that's a 'special effect.' It's an animatic that is precisely timed and there's a general direction of what's happening so there's an exactitude to it, but it isn't the special effect. The special effects are coming weeks hence.

"'So we played this movie with all these special effects -- especially at the ending, which has so many special effects -- and in place of the figure (of the Godlike being seen near the film's end), which wasn't yet put in, was a huge television set. I wanted the actors to see what was going on because we had the film. What the audience saw was the actors playing to a television set...

"'The big mistake was to preview it in town, I suppose. Four weeks later we had all our special effects in and we were a big hit. Nothing much had happened in between except we had suppressed (by editing) a couple of laughs where we didn't want laughs.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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