The Starlet's Dilemma

The Golden Ageism of Hollywood

January 16, 2006

by Edward Jay Epstein

The Hollywood Economist

The numbers behind the industry.

“Everything's geared to 15-year-olds... I have girlfriends who are 25 in L.A. who are lying about their age because people tell them they're too old. That's how pathetic it is.”     —Morgan Fairchild


In Hollywood, where the radioactive half-life of a starlet's fame may be briefer than her high school education, the effective career of an actress can be nasty, brutish, and short, or, in the lingo, “way harsh.” “The opportunities for a pretty starlet in the romantic comedies, horror films, and the amusement-park films that are made for the Clearasil crowd tend to dry up when they hit 30,” one of Hollywood's most insightful producer notes in an email. “They have to start ‘acting' as opposed to simply gracing the screen with their gorgeous presence and many of those starlets are just not equipped for this second step.” Anti-aging camouflage, such as plastic surgery, botox, collagen injections, and other elixirs may provide a brief respite but eventually every actress comes up against the age stereotyping in Hollywood famously described by Goldie Hawn: “There are only three ages for women: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.”


Some actresses succeed in breaking through this age barrier but even they find it a daunting challenge to escape Hollywood's requisites to satisfy the youth culture, as Rosanna Arquette demonstrates in her interviews with Meg Ryan, Holly Hunter, Charlotte Rampling, Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg, Martha Plimpton and a score other actresses in her 2002 documentary Searching For Debra Winger . Equally illuminating are Nancy Ellison's photographs in Starlets : Before they were Famous of gorgeously posed actresses who, having failed to make it through the Babe portal, vanished from Hollywood. As Martha Plimpton explains about casting, “It's either, she's a starlet or she's an old hag.” Such ageism proceeds not from malice, ignorance, or disdain for the performers on the part of studio executives, but from their business model.


When studios found that they could no longer count on habitual moviegoers to fill theaters, they went into the very risky business of creating tailor-made audiences for each and every movie they released. Like in an election campaign, the studios had to get people to turn out at the multiplexes on a specific date—the opening weekend. The principle means of generating this audience is to buy ads on national television. For this strategy to work efficiently, the studios find a target audience that predictably clusters around programs on which they can afford to buy time. They then bombard this audience—usually 7 times in the preceding week to an opening—with 30 second eye-catching ads.


The studios zero in on teens not because they necessarily like them, or even because the teens buy buckets of popcorn, but because they are the only demographic group that can be easily motivated to leave their home. Even though lassoing this teen herd is enormously expensive—over $30 million a film—the studios profit from that the fact that this young audience is also the coin of the realm for merchandisers such as McDonald, Domino Pizza, and Pepsi. The studios depend upon these companies for tie-deals that can add a hundred million dollars or more in advertising to a single film and can expand the primary audience for DVDs, video games, and other licensable properties on which the studios now bank on for their economic survival.


Studios therefore place the lion's share of their TV advertising—over 80 percent in 2005—on the cable and network programs that are watched primarily by people under 25. The studios also incorporate music in their sound tracks that teenagers listen to, and try to cast the sort of babe-actresses that their crucial audience can relate to, if not fantasize about. Adrienne Shelley, the star of The Unbelievable Truth , for example, described her casting experience this way: “I get a call in my car on the way to an audition from the agent. He said, ‘What is really important is that they think you are f***able.'”


The silver lining for the ex-babe actress who is no longer able or willing to play this Hollywood game is that there is now an Indie game. Independent movies, as I have previously written , often finance their productions by arranging presales abroad. Since foreign distributors usually require a recognizable American star (if only to increases the chance of DVD and TV sales in their countries), actresses who have earned name recognition as babes in Hollywood's horror, coming-of-age, and amusement park entertainments often are needed to lock up these deals. But while roles in adult-oriented Indie movies may be more artistically rewarding than roles as fantasy-bait in teen movies, they are rarely, if ever, as high paying. Such is the starlet's dilemma in babeland.


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