editor's note: First, I want to apologize to Jim Carrey. I didn't mean to make an example of him in so many cases.
An oddity of film school turns out that you can wind up sitting through lectures on stuff like "The Star System". It's kind of goofy to study something anyone who has ever had an Entertainment Weekly subscription basically gets, and you can point out a million logical fallacies around the concept, but you're talking about an industry that thinks the logical lesson to learn if a documentary about penguins is a surprise hit is to flood the market with penguin movies for two years because PENGUINS ARE HOT!!!
The Star System is basically what you might think: Hollywood believes that people will pay big money to see a particular actor, no matter what junk they put on screen. And, in the 1990's, this certainly seemed to be true. Sure, we were seeing the end of the Action Star era, where guys like myself didn't really care what the plot was to the latest Schwarzenegger movie, all we knew was that Arnie in a movie meant fireballs and mayhem, and that was worth $6.00.*
But the 90's also saw the rise of folks like Julia Roberts commanding vast salaries and Jim Carrey taking down a whole studio when they agreed to pay him $20 million for the less-than-hit, The Cable Guy.
Because the movie industry seems to base decisions upon fear and a train of logic that's a circular roller coaster, the studios loved the star system. No more guessing whether a story, effects, marketing or other factors would draw in an audience. Just point a camera at Jim Carrey mugging and flailing, and then print yourself some money.
The idea was, of course, horrendously flawed. It basically suggested that audiences were looking to see the same actor/ character in film after film. But, you also had stars taking on vanity projects that nobody wanted to see (any non-comedy project by Jim Carrey**), and Hollywood trying to create insta-stars (see: the tragic rise and fall of Alicia Silverstone).
By 2002, things were already starting to get a little shaky. Then, movies like Spider-Man, which featured semi-known actors like Tobey Maguire were suddenly raking in lots and lots of money and the star system started to give way to "what existing commodity can we adapt?" and who was actually playing The A-Team or Ghost Rider really didn't matter so much. Studios would rather try to sort out what's the next Spider-Man and keep the dough in their own pockets rather than give it to some unpredictable talent. That said, The Matrix caused some confusion and Keanu Reeves was considered for virtually any role he liked for a brief while there.
If I had to guess, kids under 18 might go see a movie based upon the talent, but these days, it seems they're mostly following Hannah Montana from TV to the movies (to paying thousands for live show tickets). But I'm guessing the older than high school set is far more likely to follow concepts, rather than "stars". After all, in the age where everyone is one good YouTube clip away from being semi-famous as "the guy who falls off the roof", how big of a deal can many of the "stars" really seem to be? Tom Cruise is the couch jumping guy. He's in the same category as the "Chocolate Rain" fellow. Why would you pay for that? And success in one film doesn't necessarily translate (see Kristen Stewart's box office in Twilight versus The Runaways).
So what the hell is going on that Hollywood can't seem to let go of Tom Cruise? And why do articles keep appearing with the writers fake-surprised that Cruise didn't have a boffo opening weekend in his 90's-looking, by the book action flick (Jesus, Tom. Give us a robot or something we can look at.)?***
From the amount of coverage Cruise and folks like Angelina Jolie get in the tabloids, you'd assume that the projects these people worked on had much higher viewership and ticket sales. But that certainly doesn't appear to be the case (name two people you know who are looking forward to Jolie's summer film, Salt.) These actors are in some bizarre twilight fame, where they can move tabloids, but nobody actually cares about their day job.
Fame is ephemeral. The stars of yesterday are rarely the same folks people line up to see today. And, honestly, unless you're one of a very select club (let's call it The Sean Connery Club), most stars weren't able to command box office until they chose to retire or wind things down. See: Sunset Boulevard. Does the machine need to believe it can control itself enough that it so desperately wants for Cruise to continue to reign the box office after doing so since I was in middle school?
At some point the gradual decline of popularity hits everyone in Hollywood. So why the ink over Cruise's flop?
And at what point do you quit writing articles asking why people aren't going to see a movie by a guy who people kind of quit going to see in movies before the whole couch incident? And maybe start asking why you'd spend money on a guy who hasn't had a big hit since Mission Impossible II in 2000?****
Like everyone else, I absolutely have actors I like. The presence of one of these trusted actors in a movie will help get me in the door much more than having no idea what to expect out of an actor I've never heard of, or seeing an actor who has built up a resume of work I'm no longer willing to take a chance on (Robin Williams). And I can sort of guess that a movie is less likely to suck if Catherine Keener is going to appear rather than, say, Paris Hilton. But I am not rushing to see a Keener movie just because she's in it. And I'd suspect that's largely true of how things operate for most folks these days.
Somehow, like all bubble economies, the star system bubble burst. And trying to put Tom Cruise back up on the wall seems like the scrambling of a part of the decaying Hollywood that (a) is unwilling to let go of a system that sorta used to work, and (b) has absolutely no idea why people go to the movies in 2010.***** But why can't the press quit asking questions to which we know the answer? Or is it that they really want to know: what happened to the star system?
It would seem that people just no longer care if they see a movie featuring Tom Cruise. There's nothing in the water. The guy had a good run. We saw his range. We even sort of laughed at his crazy movie producer schtick in Tropic Thunder (it was funny but... don't milk it, Tom). It's okay. At some point we quit caring much if all kinds of actors were in movies (have you seen what Harrison Ford is willing to do these days? Yeesh.). Go gracefully, sir. To a generation of people, you were cool in Top Gun, and then, you know, okay in other stuff, for, like, 20 years.
Hollywood: Please stop trying to save Tom Cruise's career. He is done. I'm sorry. That's how it is.****** And your little ads suggesting that everything else this summer was dumb kid stuff, but Tom Cruise doing that "let's win over the Moms" smile and riding on the hood of a car is for adults, suggesting this thing is classier than A-Team? It's not. And @#%$ you.
I am sure Tom Cruise a nice man when he isn't making a jack ass of himself to Matt Lauer, but if he can't live with what he has now, I can only shrug. Perhaps it is time for Mr. Cruise to live through the narrative of Top Gun/ Days of Thunder/ Cocktail. He was the best he was at what he did, but now he's fallen on hard times. Maybe hitting bottom will make him realize what's important and propel him into winning the big jet fight/ car race/ booze slinging that is making it in Hollywood.
*No, seriously. I saw everything I could starring Arnie until I had to admit that, despite the addition of Vanessa Williams, Eraser had broken me. (I have even seen Jingle All the Way, a movie so oddly awful it passes into that very special category of Christmas Movies of the Damned.)
** yes, Eternal Sunshine is good, but compare its take to Liar, Liar. People want to see the wacky.
***And is it just me, or do you get the same feeling looking at this movie that you did when you saw the trailer for Six Days, Seven Nights? Or, worse, this summer's Ashton Kutcher/ Katherine Heigel action vehicle, Killers. Both movies hoping that we really, really want to see these actors, when... not so much.
****Upon reflection, its not too hard to guess that Cruise was following some bad advice on how to rebuild his career when he went haywire on Oprah. It just went very, very badly.
*****to see crazy crap that TV shows can't afford to do.
******he was technically done about ten minutes into "The Last Samurai".