Movie stars are an endangered species, so how does a rising generation of Hollywood talent break into the big time if having their name above the title means less than it ever has before?
Studios are making fewer movies and handing out smaller deals to the actors who anchor them. The number of stars who command a big paycheck, boast major acting chops and deliver a massive opening weekend at the box office can be counted on both hands.
Despite the more earthbound nature of today's stardom, there is still a cavalcade of young, up-and-coming actors who are forging fascinating careers and building a following. The approach they are taking differs wildly from the one employed a decade ago, and their interpretation of stardom is more malleable.
"Now more than ever it’s really about the role rather than the size of the movie," Todd Lieberman, producer of "Warm Bodies" and "The Muppets," told TheWrap. "Actors are making choices based on interesting material rather than paydays. They would much rather build a career off a supporting role in a phenomenal director's film, rather than a lead role in a movie where they might be getting paid more, but it does not have the same cache."
Today's stars are more entrepreneurial, more digitally savvy and as interested in building long and creatively fulfilling careers as they are in scoring a franchise role. They are as willing to pop up in a web series as they are to don a superhero's cape — just as long as the work is stimulating.
In terms of actors that offer that magic amalgam of artistic and commercial appeal, there's Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp. But from there the list gets short. Although stars still matter in terms of getting financing for films, the reality is that the $20 million paydays those actors still command, is out of reach for even the hottest young talents.
The new models for stardom are the likes of Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum. In some cases, they've earned all the trappings of stardom — the magazine covers, the screaming fans — without even anchoring a blockbuster. Gosling, after all, has never starred in a movie that has grossed $100 million domestically.
What they have done is piece together interesting careers with a range of roles that straddle genres and budget ranges. Sometimes, as in the case of Chastain, that even meant a stint on Broadway, to show that versatility extends from screen to stage.
"It is critical for a young star to establish credibility through serious parts," Marc Shmuger, the former chairman of Universal Studios and a producer of the upcoming film, "The Spectacular Now," told TheWrap. "That lays the foundation for actors like Jessica Chastain or Jennifer Lawrence to have the longevity of careers of real movie stars. The two biggest movies stars, Robert Downey and Johnny Depp, established credibility after years and years of serious roles, so their popularity came organically."
That's what Bradley Cooper seems to be doing. Last fall, when "The Hangover" actor was earning critical raves for his performance as a bipolar man in "Silver Linings Playbook," he told TheWrap that the most important decision he makes in terms of committing to a project is his choice of collaborators.
"It’s really simple: I just want to work with great directors," Cooper told TheWrap.
The previous approach to launching a star by aligning a hot young actor like Shia LaBeouf (right) with a special-effects extravaganza has produced some big whiffs of late. Taylor Kitsch saw his movie career flame out spectacularly before it had much chance to light up when audiences rejected his star-turns, first in "John Carter" and then in "Battleship" in the space of three months. Likewise, Nicholas Hoult garnered critical attention for his supporting role in "A Single Man" and leading performance in the box-office hit "Warm Bodies," only to suffer a setback when the more overtly commercial "Jack the Giant Slayer" flopped badly.
"Sometimes people get in position where they get in a big movie and overplay their hand," Wyck Godfrey, a producer of "Twilight," said. "What that huge check does is put a target on an actor's back."
It's not that these big-budget productions should be eschewed entirely. Wyck said that even though special effects have become the main draw in films like "Transformers" or "Life of Pi," there is still one group of properties that reliably turn out big stars: young adult novels. After all, Lawrence had picked up an Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone" and appeared in "X-Men: First Class," but it wasn't until "The Hunger Games" that she became J-Law, a hyphenated teen idol.
"Because fans of the book series love those characters, their fondness for the material gets transported onto the actor playing them," Godfrey said. "The trick is just to not get enslaved to the character."
He said that's a trap that Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Shailene Woodley, who is set to star in the screen adaption of the best-seller "Divergent," have largely avoided by mixing up their performances in young adult epics with smaller-budgeted movies like "On the Road" or "Cosmopolis" that stretch themselves as an actor.
Despite these success stories, there has been a noticeable diminution of the term "star," producers and agents say. The rise of YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms, not to mention the ubiquity of digital cameras and other affordable production technology, have created a deluge of would-be icons. In a world where "Gangham Style" singer PSY or "Friday" belter Rebecca Black can command as many, if not more Google hits than, say, Anne Hathaway, the meaning of stardom has become at once more democratic and more meaningless.
"Everyone is simultaneously a star and a fan, so what it means to be a star is no longer shrouded in mystique, because it's been brought down to the level of the audience," Shmuger said. "It's harder today than it ever was in the past to create a meaningful differentiation between yourself and the mass of instant stars who populate YouTube."
That may be the case, but other observers say that the response for this Internet era crop of actors should be to embrace a multi-platform approach to building an audience. Peter Principato, a talent manager and founding partner of Principato-Young Entertainment, argues that YouTube and other digital spaces can serve as incubators for young stars, particularly of the comic variety.
"By posting short films or doing funny weird things with lots of personality, these people are building their fan bases, and the industry is starting to pay attention," Principato said. "A lot of these kids are more ambitious and creative than the ones that came before them."
He's talking about actors who are just starting out, but even more-established performers can see their star enhanced by exhibiting digital prowess. Actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who started the open collaborative production company HitRecord.org, have built up their artistic bona fides by releasing videos straight for the web, and James Franco has created a brand for himself as a cultural omnivore as much by blogging about "Girls" for the Huffington Post as he has by hosting the Oscars or starring in "Oz: the Great and Powerful."
The internet may be lowering the barriers to entry for stardom, but it's also giving stars more outlets to express themselves and more control over the products they put out for public consumption.
"Places like YouTube and Amazon have begun to fill the role of studios and networks," Marci Liroff, a casting director on films like "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "A Christmas Story," told TheWrap. "If you have an idea and some moxie and will and charm, you can go make a movie."
Just don't ask Liroff to define the ineffable quality that makes a star, a star.
"You just know it when you see it," she said. "It's so subjective and hard to explain, but sometimes when someone great is reading for a part, the molecules in the room just change."