‘We Used to Treat Movie Stars Like Gods’: Hollywood Grapples With Loss of Young Star Power

The hottest package at this year’s Cannes Film Festival stars a 76-year old action star and is a reboot of a movie that first dazzled moviegoers in 1993. That’s a time, in case you forgot, before TikTok or smartphones, Facebook or Amazon, or any number of technological changes that have reshaped our world and the movie business along with them.

And yet, “Cliffhanger,” with Sylvester Stallone bravely summiting the mountain again, is seen as one of the most commercial scripts out there for buyers hoping to make an adventure film that can traverse borders and bring crowds. With a nod to the younger audiences who will be needed to turn up if the movie is going to replicate the original’s blockbuster status, the producers teased that casting is currently underway for a (presumably younger?) actor to share the screen with Sly. But who will that be?

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve done a really shitty job of creating a new generation of movie stars,” groused one sales agent.

And a look at some of the projects on offer or premiering at Cannes seems to bolster that argument. There’s “Breakout,” an action-thriller featuring 75-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger that will be directed by “Expendables 4” filmmaker Scott Waugh; “Lords of War” with 59-year old Nicolas Cage returning to a role as an amoral arms dealer that he first played nearly two decades ago; “That’s Amore,” a rom-com with a 69-year old John Travolta; and “The Rivals of Amziah King,” a crime story featuring a 53-year old Matthew McConaughey. In most cases, these actors have been famous, globally so, since the 1970s or ’80s (McConaughey, a relatively newbie, had to wait until 1996’s “A Time to Kill” to make his mark).

On Thursday night, the increasingly geriatric nature of the star system was on full display at the Cannes Film Festival as an 80-year old Harrison Ford walked the red carpet for the premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” for which he donned the fedora he first wore in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and is still well-preserved enough to unabashedly doff his top (“I’ve been blessed with this body,” he said sheepishly when asked about his shirtless scene at a press conference). Ford does get an assist from some of those technological breakthroughs, appearing 35 years younger in key scenes thanks to the magic of de-aging CGI.

So why hasn’t there been a flowering of new A-listers to rival the Fords, Schwarzeneggers and Stallones of yesteryear? Protagonist Pictures COO George Hamilton points to the collapse of the DVD business in 2008 as the moment when Hollywood stopped being able to reliably make movie stars.

“Nearly all of the actors and actresses who are [bankable] now had very successful films when DVD and video was still a huge force,” said Hamilton, who is selling several films at the festival including Polly Findlay’s debut feature “Midwinter Break,” starring Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”) and Ciarán Hinds (“Belfast”). “You could see that as a dividing line shift in terms of older or newer generation. With the new generation, there’s more divisions between success because you could have the most-watched show or film on a streamer. But there might be a whole swath of society who might not subscribe, and they’re not part of that.”

In 2008, just as DVD sales began its death spiral, the first “Twilight” movie debuted, and the franchise’s next-gen stars became the centerpiece of market packages for years to come. But nearly all of those packages ultimately fizzled in the marketplace. Today, only Robert Pattinson, 37, could carry a big-budget package to the goal line on his name alone at a market like Cannes, and only because he because of his combination of box office credentials (“The Batman”) and critically acclaimed indie performances (“Good Time”). Kristen Stewart has earned critical raves in films such as “Spencer,” but hasn’t been as focused on tentpole adventures.

“Obviously, the ‘Twilight’ IP was the star there,” said director-producer Aaron Kaufman, who has worked with a number of alums from the vampire-human love story. “The shift to promoting IP over stars may have sounded like a good idea because IP doesn’t overdose or tweet about Nazis. However, this shift has left the cupboard bare when it comes to next-generation stars. This is an issue now that the IP stores have been cleaned out and all that’s left is Tube-Sock Man or whatever Marvel has yet to make.”

The most promising members of the up-and-coming A-list set often need to check multiple boxes like a Sydney Sweeney, 25, who boasts not one, but two talked-about series with “The White Lotus” and “Euphoria” as well as superhero cred via her starring role in the upcoming “Madame Web,” a spinoff in Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise.

“There’s much, much, much less people in that younger age bracket who are household names by virtue of the way in which their films or TV have reached audiences because of streaming,” Hamilton added. “So, you have to maximize the value of the new generation of stars and really ensure that there is clarity of concept, clarity on genre, really knowing who the audience is so you can really appeal to distributors.”

Meanwhile, the sales agent thinks that some of shrinking movie star phenomenon has to do with the longterm contracts that rising actors like Tom Holland (26), Chris Hemsworth (39) and their ilk have signed to appear in Marvel movies. Others such as Ryan Gosling, 42, have been inconsistent at the global box office despite commanding passionate followings, while Timothée Chalamet, 27, scored with “Dune” but remains something of an untried commodity. Michael B. Jordan, 36, has two franchises under his belt with “Black Panther” and “Creed,” but it remains to be seen whether he can carry a film without well-known IP. Likewise, Jennifer Lawrence, 32, will face a huge test with regards to her bankability with the upcoming R-rated comedy “No Hard Feelings.” Post-“Hunger Games” she was a huge draw, but has not been as active on screen in recent years.

But the agent also believes that streaming services don’t know how to apply the right amount of varnish on promising talents, in part because the movies that debut on Netflix or Prime Video don’t have the kind of massive global marketing campaigns that accompany major theatrical releases.

“We used to treat our movie stars like gods,” the agent said. “But the marketing of these streaming movies is so limited that it doesn’t really create stars. Actors aren’t burned into the minds like they once were, and they don’t have this larger-than-life image any longer.”

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