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Why Hollywood Is Looking To The Stars For Some Certainty



Written By: Matthew Walsh

There is a new trend in Hollywood. It is glitzy, expensive and inspired by the industry’s revered golden age. It’s also incredibly simple and looks like an indicator of how the film world is searching for some certainty among these uncertain times. It is, in short, star power.

A wave of big money deals in recent months have seen studios tying themselves to some of the industry’s biggest stars in a series of moves that signifies where the power currently lies in Hollywood.

Tom Cruise, a one-man box-office machine, kicked things off in January by agreeing what was billed as a “strategic partnership” with Warner Bros. that will see the actor star in and produce works for the company. Not long afterwards, the same studio turned to the star of their Dune and Wonka releases to secure a first-look agreement with Timothee Chalamet. In similar fashion Amazon MGM got both Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling to sign agreements alongside their respective production companies to deliver projects under the company’s objective ‘to create bold theatrical and streaming events within all genres’.

These deals, eye-watering as they appear in dollars and cents, speak to an industry in flux. One looking at the current landscape and not necessarily liking what it sees. For years now Hollywood has been reckoning with the threat of alternative viewing models and platforms, competing entertainment sources and decreasing returns. These deals seem to reflect not only that, but suggest that the global pandemic and last year’s strike action is still being felt in the pockets of some of the biggest studios. They are attempting to claw back some level of guarantee of income for their hefty outlay and decided that the way to do that is to reach for the stars.

For an industry as lucrative as theirs, Hollywood is an incredibly risk-averse institution. The leading studios have often budgeted, analysed and swept algorithms in advance of greenlighting a project, ensuring as much as possible that they are likely to see some form of return on their significant investment. It’s a safety-first approach that can result in unimaginative storytelling, endless sequels and reliance on familiar existing IPs.

In recent years this method has started to look less and less of a dead cert. What were at one point considered guaranteed income generators have failed to pull in the punters in necessary numbers, leaving some of the largest movie machines in the world out of pocket. So, when even the likes of grandstanding superhero titles (Black Adam, Madame Web, Ant Man and Aquaman among them) fail to ignite the box office. The Hollywood machine has been forced to look to another method to ensure some revenue, returning to a tried and tested formula of its past and to a period of time that Hollywood is only too fond to remind us of.

While it’s safe to assume these landmark agreements won’t be as restrictive as the ‘golden handcuffs’ forced upon former starlets – complete with diet restrictions, clauses around romantic partners and the inability to refuse projects – they are something of a throwback to Hollywood’s glorious, golden past. The deals forged from a time when only Hollywood could make stars on a global scale and create personalities that the people loved enough to come out to see in significant numbers.

They represent, in Hollywood’s eyes, the key connection between the industry and its audience. It’s the reason why they’re paid the biggest salaries – because they’re believed to bring in the biggest incomes.

It’s behind the identity of those names cutting these deals too. Tom Cruise has devoted his recent output to ensuring a return on investment for his films. His dedication to bring audiences to the big screen has seen his last three releases bring in $2.8bn globally.  For his young age, Timothee Chalamet already has a string of blockbusters under his belt, including this year’s highest grossers to date, Dune 2 and Wonka. And Ryan Gosling was recently in the box office behemoth to end them all, Barbie. The latter two also share an indie credibility and a pin-up sensibility whose potential to attract an even wider crowd would not have gone unnoticed by those drawing up contracts and Warners and Amazon HQ.

Peer a little closer, however, and flaws in these plans may start to appear. As considered an approach as this may seem to studios, it’s no less risky than greenlighting a nine-figure budgeted production. Yes, Tom Cruise did star in Mission: Impossible and Top Gun: Maverick but he also starred in The Mummy just two years before. Ryan Gosling, while very much a popular and charismatic performer, is far from a box office draw. The only certified global hit he starred in was Barbie where he was very much second fiddle to Margot Robbie. The same could be said of Timothee Chalamet and his turns in Dune and Wonka.

What all three stars have in common is that their biggest commercial hits have come through existing IP vehicles, with the names arguably playing second billing to the concepts themselves. In fact, the ten highest grossing films of the 21st century – including two Avatars, three Avengers, a Fast and Furious and a Star Wars – are all driven by existing fanbases and notable by a lack of a true A-list star at their centre.

To use a football analogy, the studios have bought the star striker but ignored the manager who put the team together. And, while these stars may bring in audiences for now, they may fall foul of changing tastes and appetites. After all, there was a time that westerns were all the range, then rom-coms came and went. The same can be said of stars too. Fans are fickle and trends and tastes come and go quickly in this game.

Are we truly witnessing the dawn of a new actor-studio age? Perhaps. Is it a rather unimaginative act by an industry adjusting to an altered landscape? Probably. These are early days and there will be a lot of others taking note of how successful these partnerships become, but there’s one thing we can be sure of going by studios’ love of a sequel: if they prove to be successful there will certainly be more to come in the years that follow.

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