Quentin Tarantino can sometimes come off a little surly.
He and a cadre of famous directors – mostly old and mostly male – are pretty miffed about the state of movie culture in 2022. The thing that really riles them up is the dominance of Marvel, with Disney’s comic book movies being a byword for any intellectual property-driven blockbuster franchise.
Think DC, Star Wars, Godzilla vs Kong, Fast and Furious, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park and more.
People like Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola feel as if the existence of franchises are influencing what does and doesn’t get greenlit in Hollywood.
And they’re not wrong – although some of their more caustic takes about superhero movies being not real storytelling is a little shallow.
Intellectual property (IP) has taken over cinema releases and it’s happened in conjunction with the rise of streaming, which makes it so much easier for audiences to stay home and press play instead of schlepping out and forking out at least $50 for two tickets, more if you want snacks and drinks and had to pay for parking or an Uber.
Many moviegoers will only go to that effort for a “tentpole” or “event” movie, such as an Avengers flick or maybe the next Indiana Jones installation. Or a kid’s movie like the umpteenth Despicable Me.
Undoubtedly, those brands are bigger than any of the actors in them. And that’s what Tarantino’s latest missive is getting at.
He told the 2 Bears, 1 Cave podcast, “Part of the Marvel-isation of Hollywood is, you have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters. But they’re not movie stars. Right?
“Captain America is the star. Or Thor is the star. I mean, I’m not the first person to say that. I think that’s been said a zillion times but it’s like, you know, it’s these franchise characters that become a star.”
Tarantino is correct. Evans may be a big star. Chris Hemsworth may be a big star. But they’re not movie stars in the same way the term has been understood for almost a century.
They’re not movie stars in the same way that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett were and most still are movie stars.
Audiences don’t flock to the next Thor movie because it’s a Hemsworth movie, they go because it’s a Thor movie. Same with Evans. The god of thunder and People’s sexiest man alive don’t sell movie tickets, they sell streaming subscriptions. For better or worse, that’s a measure of success in 2022.
Marvel is the brand, it’s the drawcard. Evans and Hemsworth are not. Even when Jolie, Blanchett, Michael Douglas and Christian Bale are in a Marvel movie they are not bigger than the MCU. Audiences didn’t go to ant man because of Douglas. They didn’t go to Thor: Love and Thunder because of Bale.
But viewers will absolutely watch a movie for Hemsworth if it’s at home on streaming. That’s why Netflix is so embedded in the Hemsworth business, and why the actor is being paid $US20 million for Extraction 2. it’s why The Gray Man clocked up all those hours.
Actors like Hemsworth, Evans, Chris Pratt, Tom Holland and Millie Bobby Brown, who catapulted to stardom because of big franchises, are catnip to a streaming viewer. At home on streaming, what the movie doesn’t matter as much as the fact they’re in it.
The barrier to entry is so much lower. You’re either already paying for the subscription or you may be willing to sign up for free trial (or a cheapie membership) to check out that new Adam Sandler movie you’ve been hearing about.
It takes about two minutes and you don’t even have to leave your couch.
Compare that to Ticket to Paradise, a mediocre rom-com with a predictable, prosaic plot. What it was didn’t matter, what did was the combined starpower of Clooney and Roberts in a genre that doesn’t challenge. Ticket to Paradise made $US158 million.
That’s no slight on those three of the four Hollywood Chrises, or Brown or Holland. If it was 20 years earlier, they would be bona fide movie stars but the machine doesn’t churn them out anymore.
And for the likes of Hemsworth, they shrewdly understand that when it comes to their personal brand, the audiences and the big paycheques are on streaming. You wouldn’t begrudge them those choices.
Even the last wave of new movie stars – the people who drive you to pay for a movie ticket regardless of the film such as Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling and Charlize Theron – their statuses were minted almost two decades ago.
The tectonic shifts in the industry and audience behavior have seen to the end of the old order.
But Tarantino is wrong to attribute the end of the movie star to Marvel’s influence. It has just as much to do with the rise of streaming, which has fueled the choices studios make in what they do and don’t finance, and what they do and don’t market.
The explosion in home entertainment choices – and at reasonable prices – has changed what audiences will and won’t leave their home for. Cinema has become almost a premium experience, and the average filmgoer in Australia goes to fewer than five movies a year.
The economic imperative for studios is to throw their money behind franchises with a built-in audience, whose brands are bigger than any one person.
Fans don’t go to the Fast and Furious because they want to see Vin Diesel wax lyrical about family, they go because they want increasingly outlandish car chases and spectacles. And they know that’s exactly what they’re going to get, it’s a given. So they know what they’re paying for. And it’ll easily survive the death of a lead, as it has Paul Walker’s.
The convergence of franchise dominance and streaming also leads to the chicken and the egg thing.
Did audiences stop going to see mid-budget comedies at the cinemas first and that’s why they’re now the domain of streaming? Or did audiences realize there were great comedies on streaming so didn’t see the point of paying for it at the cinemas?
You’re much more likely to find people such as Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jennifer Aniston, Amy Poehler and Reese Witherspoon on a streaming service than you will at the movies.
Does that mean we don’t have movie stars anymore? It’s not so black-and-white. The likes of Pitt and Keanu Reeves are still around.
And there’s a front of young talent including Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet who sell tickets regardless of the project, but their ability to put bums on seats aren’t yet multi-generational. They appeal to their devoted peers but not yet grandparents.
There are also those names not so easily slotted in anywhere. Someone like Margot Robbie, who is undeniably a star, and who still works exclusively on the big screen. Or Emma Stone, Anya Taylor-Joy and Saoirse Ronan.
But their names alone aren’t enough. It has to be a combination of name and project. David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, a star-studded comedy starring Robbie, Bale, Robert De Niro and about a dozen other names, was one of the biggest box office flops of the year. It stands to lose up to $US100 million.
Robbie and her compatriots don’t command the same position as her peers from 30 years earlier did. The way that IP does now.
It didn’t even matter that the new Lord of the Rings series had no “stars” because Middle-Earth is what matters.
That shift has its upsides, it’s given studios cover to cast actors with lower profiles and from more diverse backgrounds because the strength of the brand is enough. People such as Simu Liu, Chadwick Boseman, Ismael Cruz Cordova and Sonequa Martin-Green.
The culture has changed and you can rarely change anything back. Marvel may not have killed the movie star but it certainly now is the movie star. Tarantino is at least half-correct.