Fri, Dec 23, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Film stars are losing their on-screen shine

As box-office takings remain lackluster, gossip about the real life drama of the famous takes on a life of its own


Are the stars now worth more than the films they appear in?


From the obsessively watched trial of Michael Jackson to the ultimate love triangle saga of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the elite of Hollywood

provided plenty of real life drama -- but precious little to talk about at the cinema this year.

That ironic discrepancy is one of the major reasons why studio heads have been tearing out their perfectly coiffed hair trying to come up with a formula that would regularly persuade movie goers to part with their hard-earned cash at the local Cineplex.

But all the hair tugging hasn't helped. As of late November, this year's cumulative box-office is down 6 per cent from last year, and more than 10 per cent, or nearly US$1 billion, from 2002. Of the 47 weekends so far this year, only 14 have done more business than the comparable weekends of last year.

The reasons are not just the grinding predictability of the films coming off the studios' production lines -- even though like US cars, they are overweight, unexciting and way too expensive.

The challenge is that the under 30's age group -- the largest buyer of film tickets -- is revolutionizing its leisure habits. With so much more of their entertainment diet coming through their computers, laptops, digital video recorders, home entertainment systems, video games and MP3 players, films have to be better than ever in order to spark interest.

And they are obviously not meeting the challenge.

"There simply are not a lot of really good movies that people were interested in," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Every time a new element enters the field -- movies have to be better to attract people."

Still, old habits die hard, and by far the two biggest movies of the year were franchises that hooked moviegoers long before the medium had lost much of its luster.

Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith took in US$350 million. And the fourth Harry Potter movie also looks well on the way to becoming a giant bonanza -- an anomaly in pop culture, since many fans of the popular film series have already read the Harry Potter books.

The only other box office moment worthy of historic mention this year was the surprising success of the nature documentary The March of the Penguins.

Yet even if the audience had little appetite for run-of-the-mill movies, they had plenty for genuine dramas featuring movie stars in all their real life glory.

"The equity of our celebrities now exceeds the equity of the media that gave them status in the first place," says Thompson. "Film, television and radio are now so fragmented that the one thing we all share is the celebrities themselves. Celebrity has become the one common denominator."

Thus, Michael Jackson's trial on child sex charges gripped television viewers around the world, with its lurid peek into the life of the eccentric pop star. Though he was eventually acquitted, the glare of attention proved too much for Jackson, who has abandoned his Neverland Ranch to reside in the seclusion of far off Bahrain.

Other hot gossip items concerned the split of Hollywood's premiere glamour couple, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston and its swift replacement by the even more heavenly pair of Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Pitt and Aniston's announcement of their divorce in March this year was accompanied by rumors that the hunk had fallen for Jolie while they worked together on the otherwise forgettable Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

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