Friday, May 2, 2008

On Emergence of New Celebrity Culture and Economics

On Emergence of New Celebrity Culture and Economics
Posted May 1, 2008 Tagged 300, celebrity, celebrity culture, celerities, economics, film, Hollywood, studio era
There have always been individuals who are well exposed in the public domain but how and why they got there changes with time. Even though the types of celebrities changed, their relationship with our culture and economic system did not. It is on this premise that I began my search for the new definition of “celebrity” and means to achieve such status in the contemporary culture. There are three general stages in the creation of the “new celebrities.” First, the fall of the Star Era and change in Hollywood stars. Secondly, the emergence of a new generation of famous people who are successful in their respectable fields, and last but not least the rise of mass media and mass celebrity. There is an inherent connection between the rise of a new cast of celebrities and the economic forces behind them. The stardom of Hollywood provides us with a sufficient starting point to where it all began.
The history of Hollywood and film making goes back to about 100 years ago with the birth of first film The Great Train Robbery (1903). This new, experimental medium was promoted as an illusion, a magic of some sorts that are offered in places such as vaudeville theaters. However, the rise of stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford changed everything. Stars like such promoted the cinema around the world. This can be contributed to the fact that they give the audience some sort of guarantee. In other words, people believed that once a star is in a film, then it must be good. Their success is also associated with the public’s growing interest in the magic of cinematography, as well as the personal lives of its stars. It is because of this interest that people go to the movies as they have no other means of access to the stars. Corliss, a leading researcher in the history of film and economics, wrote that “By the 1930s, numerous studios enlisted A-listed stars to ensure stability.” (Corliss, 1) Studio owners realized that paying a premium on famous actors could greatly increase the box office income. This is because people enjoyed watching their favorite stars as if they give plot itself legitimacy. By the 1950s, the cinema scene is different again, with top talents like John Wayne, Burt Lancaster becoming their own producers. These individuals are celebrities by their own right, without studio support. This is really the Golden Age for Hollywood and its stars. (Corliss, 1) Countless people went to Hollywood in search of fame, even if it is short lived. Fast forward to today, the world changes again to a new era where A-listed stars no long guarantees box office hits while no name epics dominated the movie industry.
Take a quick look at the box office today, one would quickly realize that the old business model of putting up a star studded line up no longer guarantees a productions success. George Clooney, in the Good German, a classical spy thriller, earned 1.3 million in the box office. He might as well have just paid for it himself and have everyone watch it for free. After all, it is the trend of Hollywood stars to indulge themselves with personal film projects. This is much the same with his next release the Leatherheads, though there are no box office predictions yet. For another example, Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, earned merely four million dollars. (Corliss, 1) This is not a figure that would please any producer.
On the other hand, Gerard Butler in 300, The epic of the year, earned $211 million in box office alone. That is not counting the upcoming DVD release, the merchandise, and the fan fare. He was not known for anything in particular except couple minor roles in the beginning of 2000s. For another example Shia LaBeouf, the new comer, became the main character in the special effect filled epic about robots-Transformers. The movie is not about the characters and their stories, but rather about the visuals and explosions. Last but not least, Tobey Maguire, in the third installment of the Spider-Man movie, earned $337 million at the box office. That is a whole lot of cash if you add all three movies together. Again it is not counting the DVDs, the T-shirts, and all the licensed products. Compares to the older studio era, this is already a drastically different business model. Stability of box office income can no longer be guaranteed so the risk is balanced with other means. In the case of 300, it is lower paying actors, great market campaign, and global sale in film related merchandise. Of course such a claim is not fault proof. Frame this section a bit more .
As I am writing this, I feel there is a counter argument to the point I just made. When the non-stars became center of a Hollywood hit, they become a “star.” Gerard Butler is going to be in two movies this year and at least two more next year. Compare to his five in total in the past six year that is definably a much welcomed change. However, the star in his case is very much different compare to the stars of the past. The old studios made movies that are tailored to the actors and the film is often about how great of the star is. In Gerard Butler’s case, it is more about the Spartans in 300 than who “Gerard Butler” is. One might even argue that the casting of a well known actor would bring too much character into the film, when the image should be built on a blank slate. For another example, Shia LaBeouf’s role could not have been carried out with tons of CGI effects. This is vital as part of the argument because the focus of the movie is on the robots, not the characters. Without it, Transformers would have fallen into the typical high school romance and below average at best. I personally never quite understood why LaBeouf must carry the cube to the helicopter for extraction when obviously a helicopter is vulnerable to a flying evil Decepticon. In fact I am not too sure if he was needed at all except to provide some “human element” to a robotic epic. Now, it is not to say that human element is not needed for a huge CGI production like the Transformers, however my argument here is that it wouldn’t have mattered if LaBeouf played the part of not. Another actor could have worked just as well given the same amount of acting experience, since the the image of LaBeouf’s character does not benefit from how LaBeouf is as a actor. Certainly not to the same degree as the old days. Just to drive the point home, John Wayne is THE cowboy. He could dress up in a Armani tux, stand in the middle of anystreet in LA and still communicate his distinct film character. This is a quality very much lost in most recent film stars.
Another profound reason for the falling of stars is the rise of new media such as television. Perhaps it is appropriate to go back to time where studios signed big stars. There were two kinds of studio owners. On the East coast, the studios tried to hide the private lives of the stars from the newspaper. When the actors are on the screen, they represent their character and to certain extend their studio employers. However, the West Coast, or Hollywood, took a different approach. They focused on giving the stars a private life. Even though sometimes these lives are fabricated and tossed to the reporters, it none the less satisfied people’s curiosity of the private lives of the stars. It is more then apparent that such strategy guaranteed the success of Hollywood, and more importantly underlined how the system of film industry functions. On another hand, some things have changed since then due to several reasons. First of all, the rise of Internet took out the necessity of going to the movies. One doesn’t have to go very far to become acquainted with the daily lives of their favorite stars. Secondly, people’s interest shifted heavily towards the “real” lives of the stars rather then the fabricated illusions on screen. It became in a sense irrelevant how great an actor of actress is on screen, but rather how good they are at generating interesting stories in their real lives. Though true movie stars are fading but interested in the lives of the famous people in blossoming. However they have a new name, called celebrities.
Celebrity, the demigods of our society, are by no means a recent concept. However the rise of mass media such as television had given rise to public figures such as Michael Jordan and many others in the 80s and 90s. They are a new generation of famous people who did not rely on film as a medium to establish their image with the public. However, they did gain public attention through their talent in many fields. For example, Deborah Jermyn has commented that, in the pages of contemporary celebrity magazines:
The hierarchy once headed by cinematic stars has apparently shifted as glamorous names from film, TV and other arenas feature alongside one another as equal objects of desire and public interest. (Jermyn 70)
The Michael Jordan phenomenon, as many may call it, is a sign of things to follow. Nike, like the studio owners of old Hollywood, elevated Jordan to the level of god, and racked in profits by the billions. Sports superstars have always enjoyed their fair share of public attention along the side of the movie stars, but never to the degree observed in recent decades. This is because no matter how famous a sports star might have been, their image did not travel beyond the stadium. In contrast, during the age of mass media the images of famous people are marketable products that increased the sale of anything associated with it. Corporate endorsement pushed the idea of celebrity to a new realm because they are the once who has the financial means to put people like Michael Jordan under the Television spotlight. It is debatable if Jordan’s shoes really made him jump higher, but the marketing strategy certainly paid off. According to David Marshall,
[a] celebrity is a public individual who participates openly as a marketable commodity serves as a powerful type of legitimating of the political economic model of exchanges and values. (Marshall, 120)
While the Hollywood stars sold movies, the new celebrities sold just about anything with their name on them.
This point is further illustrated by the countless magazines such as US weekly, People etc, all with a strong focus on what the celebrities are doing with their lives, their fashion sense, and their pregnancy. There are considerable amount of money to be made in this capitalistic business of star watching. Living in Los Angeles, one can not help but to see paparazzi with their cameras patrolling Rodeo Drive. It pays to broadcast the private lives of the celebrity because it is simply what people are interested in. some argue that while England has their royal family to admire, the Americans have the celebrities to worship.
Worship, I believe is an important word here.Nice move. It is vital in the sense that the famous people are idolized to the extremes. They serve as images for the mindless consumption of the public. There are several reasons for this. Celebrities provide us with entertainment. They provide us mortals with things to gossip about around the clock. They give us something to focus on in what is otherwise an uneventful work day. It is all around us. Today’s headline on US reads, “Jamie Lynn Spears Relaxes after Birthday.” (And I am supposed to convince you that those are the kind of headlines that make money.) Under related topics it reads,
Jamie Lynn Spears Spends 17th Birthday Without Family
Jamie Lynn Turns 17!
Jamie Lynn Spears Hides Growing Bump Under Hoodie
Jamie Lynn Spears Wears “Rumors Are True” T-Shirt
Cousin Confirms Jamie Lynn Spears Is Engaged (Merrit 1)
For many of you who do not know who Lynn Spears is, she is the sister of Brittney Spears who recently got pregnant at the age of sixteen. Reportedly her mother sold the story to a magazine for one millions dollars. And now Jamie Lynn shares the spotlight with her sister as the focus of popular culture. The fact that such news could be sold for one millions dollars is not a sign of inflation, but evidences for the lucrative businesses that parasite around the celebrities. According to Neal Gabler, celebrity attracts so much attentions because we, the people, want to read about their stories. He made an important distinction between famous people, such as Dick Cheney, and a celebrity, such as Brad Pitt.
There are no paparazzi elbowing one another aside to snap Cheney’s picture, no swooning Cheney fans crying out, “Dick, Dick,” most of all no Cheney stories filling the tabloids. (Gabler, 4)
Thus a celebrity is created through their ability to generate interesting narrative stories for the media to publish, and for the public to indulge on. There is a direct relationship between the amount of public attention they receive and their news worthiness. And there is an inverse relationship of the newsworthiness of an individual and the importance of the news event. (If you can call it news). The more famous you are, the less you have to do. In other words, all Brittney Spears have to do is to get a cup of coffee to be on the headlines of any tabloid magazine. However even this role of thumbs changed in the new age of mass produced celebrities. Brittney had many platinum hits and a Pepsi Commercial while the new emerging class of famous people had much less talent wise.
In the age of new media it is almost easy to become famous compared to the old days. For example, Gerard Butler, an otherwise unknown actor, now receives unbelievable amount of media attention. Such attention is not sourced from general consensus about his acting skills, but rather his role in 300. He is invited to many talk shows and movie screening, which arguably demands nothing to his acting talent, but certainly adds to his image as a celebrity. According to the prominent cultural historian Daniel Boorstin, “a celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” (Boorstin 25) This is more so then ever, because one does not have to look very hard to find such instances every where. Of course this example is more or less conventional because it is none the less linked to the stardom of Hollywood. There are many others who simply endow themselves with the news worthiness of a celebrity.
What does Paris Hilton, and Kim Kadashian share in common? They both released their sex tape to the public. While such an action might be condemned few decades ago, both ladies enjoyed a raise in their celebrity status. Paris Hilton, given the multi million dollar heiress of the Hilton fortune, acquired her own club, TV show, movie role (The Museum of Wax) and last but not least bill board 100 album. All of these began with a tape, one that instantly proliferated the Google search engine, the magazine stands, and Pay Per View sites. Kim Kadashian on the other hand fared equally as well. Her new show “keeping up with the Kadashians” was just released and she appeared in countless events as special guest of hostess. Perhaps being a celebrity is about sex appeal, or it is simple being rich and known. There are other famous people following the example of Hilton and Kadashian by releasing their sex-tapes. It’s almost as if one is willing to do whatever it takes to reach that paparazzi filled plateau. More importantly, our society accepts them, praises them, and to some degree wants to be just like them. I can not help but to notice that while Paris Hilton received considerable criticism a few years ago, Kim Kadashian achieved instant success. Going back the the early notion of “news worthiness” vs. media attention, a sex tape is the the golden stamp that elevates someone’s “news worthiness.” In addition, through the powerful medium of Internet (ahum), the content spreads like a wild fire that could not be contained. As an result, famous people who have released a sex tape in today’s society finds their fame multiplied exponentially.
The idea of celerity is a completely different concept compare to that of a “star.” There is something glamorous, and ever lasting in a “star.” Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stuart, Humphrey Bogart, and Grace Kelly commands authority in their name. These names meant something to many generations of movie goers. They represent the golden age of Hollywood. On the other hand, I can not help but to think that famous people like Jon Heder, the star of Napoleon Dynamite fades as quickly as he rises. Twenty years later, Kim Kadashian would not mean the same to the teenagers of the time. This of course is all rooted in the very nature of the concept celebrity. It suggests temporary fame. So what about the long tail of the internet?
While people have the idea that the famous people are different from us, that they are something of a different realm, it is rewarding to see their demise. Interestingly, the purpose behind US Weekly is to show famous people doing normal things just like one of us. There are comforts to know that no matter how wealthy, and famous someone is, he or she is still mortal and is subjected to the obstacles of life. Hollywood reporters give us exactly that. For every story about the rise of a new celebrity, there are five more stories about another celebrity’s downfall. The unfortunate events that revolves are Brittney Spears is an excellent example in how the media explores the tragedies of a famous person’s life. Ironically, being famous at a very young age, one could argue that it is the media empire that contributed to her rise, and now it is the same empire that is contributing to her destruction. It almost seems that we are addicted to see how vulnerable our “gods” are, and how they are susceptible to the cruelties of life. Besides the possibility of jealousy, some part of us want to know that no matter how wealthy, famous, and talented a person is, he or she are just like one of us. However, there is a greater desire to feel that we could be part of “them.”
The promise of being famous is the force behind the new age of celebrity culture. From Survivor to American Idol, no matter how different the concept of the show is, it is about ordinary people doing things on TV. Ordinary people in this case is like the stars, the sports figure, they help to sell the show as “reality TV.” American Idol is in its god knows how many season, and more and more TV shows is proliferating. While there is still the need for famous faces, the average person has better chance then ever to become famous in today’s world. This is certainly true in the Cinderella story of Sarah Larson, the current girlfriend of George Clooney. Sarah Larson, a Fear Factor winner who met Clooney four years ago, is now vacationing with “the last real movie star.” She is constantly in tabloids and news headlines due to her relationship with Clooney. Perhaps what shows such as American Idol offers is the idea that anyone can become famous, anyone can have their 15seconds of fame. And this is validated through the very fact that “ordinary celebrities” are on them. For another example, Youtube, with the tag line “Broadcast Yourself,” has already sent many to the road of fame. It’s as if in this day and age being ordinary is an essence to fame since the media can not get enough of how a regular guy became well known. Such a phenomenon could not have occurred without the media pushing the wheels.
First came the age of mass media that changed stardom forever. Then there was the rise of reality TV shows that feeds off people’s desire to be under the spotlights of the world stage. In Joshua Gamson’s words what is now in place is a system where “surface has overwhelmed substance, image has overtaken reality, and truth is submerged in a sea of irrelevance.” (Gamson 46) The values of life-style and consumption have pushed aside those things that really mattered. With celebrities as its vehicle, the economical forces of today’s America have pushed superficiality to a new extreme. Even though Hollywood’s glamour was carefully fabricated through the images of the stars, it never sold itself as the reality. Fame today on the other hand floats under the guise of reality television, game shows, contests and especially tabloid generated lives of celebrities.

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