Hollywood's "destination actor" challenge

What happened to primping, galas and fornication? Why Hollywood just doesn't know how to live large anymore.

Published February 27, 2003 9:50PM (EST)

Over Oscar weekend Hollywood will be overrun with prancing stylists and shrieking cable hosts who still want you to believe that stars spend their time primping and fornicating in luxury trailers. In fact, Hollywood is increasingly a suburban town.

On their corporate planes, the moguls are working, sweating in their sweat suits, trying to make the numbers. They might as well be on the 7:12 from Great Neck, N.Y. In Palm Pilot Hollywood the "talent" view their careers as a question of brand management. Perks are chalked up to workaholism enablement -- the personal assistants, trainers, stress coaches required to maintain the brand. The goal, above all, is to become "a destination actor," so called because, as one agent patiently explained it, on that crucial opening weekend you and I will go out to see them. Leo, Julia and the two Toms are destination actors. Tobey Maguire? Nah. Vin Diesel, who since his success in "The Fast and the Furious" refers to himself in the third person as "The Vin," thinks he's a destination actor. Of greater debate is the status of the Ben Affleck brand. Now that "Daredevil" is a hit, is Ben finally a real destination actor? Is he? Is he? That discussion can go on for hours.

In the new Hollywood it's uncool to live large. This is not the same as living cheap. The cult of the baby reigns. The most successful studios are run by alpha moms like Universal's Stacey Snider, who goes home to her two daughters at night with a book bag full of scripts, or Amy Pascal at Sony Pictures, who has a rocking-horse-equipped nursery for her 3-year-old son right next to her office. Star contracts invariably include full payment of a roster of nannies. Nicole Kidman spends whatever time she isn't with her kids learning her lines and hoping to meet a nice guy. When Brad Pitt was asked at the London premiere of "Snatch" a couple of years ago what he most enjoys about his union with the lovely Jennifer Aniston he replied, "Being married means I can pass gas and eat ice cream in bed." Not exactly Errol Flynn.

The recession, the war and the accounting scandals that have rocked the studios' corporate parents have made the big Hollywood gesture a stylistic dinosaur.

Vivendi Universal has decreed the sale of the two Gulfstreams and one Bombardier Global Express that used to be deployed to fly talent around in style. Universal's art collection is also on the block. Studios are debating whether to invest in gala premieres anymore. After all, what's a gala premiere anyway? Just the producer booking the rooftop of a high-rise for a jump-up for several thousand of his closest dermatologists and groomers. Now if the movie stinks the studios have an excuse not to be forced by the producer's ego to go all out. When they do do an opening event it's flogged off to some prudently cheesy hybrid of sponsorship and media buy. If "Bridge on the River Kwai" were opening today, the invitation to the premiere would probably begin, "Foot Locker and Columbia Pictures cordially invite you ..."

The trend began when the big conglomerates started to absorb the studios. After the merger of Time Warner with AOL in 2001, the luxurious Warner Villa in Acapulco, Mexico, known as Villa Eden, was swiftly dumped. Steve Ross, the showman and entertainment mogul who built Time Warner, acquired the villa in the '70s in order to throw house parties where he could pamper the stars. "Stay a dreamer," he used to say to Steven Spielberg, "and never go public."

Ross, a legendary big spender, would no doubt argue that conspicuous nonconsumption may go over well with shareholders and the business press, but it risks something else. Hiving off planes, villas and art starts to erode the iconography of glamour. Flash and splash are in Hollywood's DNA. Garage sales are not. Rationalize the silly side entirely and you start messing with motivating magic and the movie-star dreams of the public.

But smart filmmakers don't care about megaperks. They know that the corporate desire to look frugal is all relative anyway. 2002 was a record year for Hollywood profits. The studios are spending like drunken sailors on their Oscar campaigns.

Hollywood is built on a pendulum of passion and greed. Movies are an art form straining to be a business and a business straining to be an art form. The one is bound to gnaw the vitals of the other. Right now the pressure from the megacorporations that own most of the big studios is squeezing passion like never before. All the moviemakers I saw in Hollywood last week are bummed out by the trend to make only big franchise pictures like "Spider-Man" or the upcoming "The Hulk" that can pour out of every orifice of vertical integration and declare a victory for synergy. They are demoralized by the fact that even when they do deliver a box office smash it has scarcely any impact on the bottom line of a megacorp, let alone the stock price. (Hitmeisters like to matter, to be rewarded by more than the grosses. There was method in the madness of Steve Ross's fantasy Acapulco villa.) They are harassed by demands from on high to keep justifying their hunches by predicting the unpredictable.

What has changed is that in the past the corporate heads were real movie guys. Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn crushed many a sensitive artistic soul, but they were showmen who knew when to let passion overwhelm accountancy. That's why my erstwhile partner Miramax's Harvey Weinstein has scored so big with 31 Oscar nominations. At Miramax, movies are greenlighted by a raucous committee of one.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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