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‘Spider-Man’ is a box office hero. Is Hollywood in a post-movie star era?

Spider-Man in front of an illustrated star burst.
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ became the first movie of the pandemic to gross $1 billion worldwide.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Sony Pictures)
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Welcome to the Dec. 28, 2021, edition of the Wide Shot newsletter about the business of entertainment. If this was forwarded to you, sign up here to get it in your inbox.

We’re almost to the end of the year, with Christmas over and the Omicron variant still messing up people’s plans.

But newslettering continues unabated at the Los Angeles Times! To cap off the year, instead of the usual weekly aggregation, I’ve compiled some of my colleagues’ most impactful stories of 2021, including investigative pieces that truly shook certain institutions, like the Golden Globes (ever heard of ‘em?)

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Before that, a little analysis on your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who is still ruling the box office.

It’s one of the hottest debates in Hollywood. In an age when comic book intellectual property rules the film and TV business, how much do movie stars still matter?

It has become a generally accepted truism that, especially in the case of the superhero fare dominating the box office, audiences are buying tickets for the characters they love rather than the various Toms and Chrises playing them. By that logic, the entertainment industry is in a post-movie star era, and has been for some time.

And yet, actors still fetch multimillion dollar salaries and hefty box office bonuses for donning the spandex. Studios must think they’re worth the big bucks on some level.

The amount of clout A-list actors still wield in the entertainment business will be a familiar theme to regular readers of this newsletter. It was a central question on the minds of executives and agents as Scarlett Johansson brawled with Walt Disney Co. over her compensation for “Black Widow.” Talent still has the power to make demands of media corporations.

For this edition, I’m interested in what makes someone a true star in this era of Hollywood. In my mind, stardom connotes more than popularity. In the commercial sense, the designation of “movie star” is supposed to signal someone whose charisma drives the success of whatever project they’re in. Not many people qualify these days.

It’s clear that some of the old guard of onscreen icons can still draw audiences in the right roles. “Top Gun: Maverick,” which most people in the industry expect to make a heap of money when it finally debuts next year, wouldn’t work without the enduring appeal of Tom Cruise as the hotshot fighter pilot.

In fact, he might be the thing that gets older moviegoers back into theaters, provided that COVID-19 variants stop scaring off audiences of a certain age.

But few, if any, among the latest generation of film actors can open a movie based largely on their own appeal. For a casual case study, let’s talk about Tom Holland.

A young man in a suit poses with a young woman in a spiderweb dress.
Tom Holland and Zendaya star in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Steve Cohn / Eric Charbonneau for SPE)

With “Spider-Man: No Way Home” becoming the first movie to gross $1 billion worldwide during the pandemic, one would think the British actor, who has played Peter Parker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since “Captain America: Civil War,” would qualify as a legit movie star.

But does he? Does anyone?

Pro: Many parts of the film star formula are there for Holland. He’s the face of arguably the world’s most popular film character, and the 25-year-old’s boyish charm has been a key part of the success of the webslinger franchise’s latest iteration.

His once kid-like persona has matured since “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which director Jon Watts and the Kevin Feige-Amy Pascal producing team used to filter John Hughes-style teen comedy tropes through the Marvel prism.

Variety cited the salary bumps Holland is sure to command in future gigs as evidence that he could help fulfill Hollywood’s desperate need for a new generation of leading men. Further helping the case is his offscreen romance with his co-star Zendaya, which only adds to the pop culture intrigue.

Con: Without consulting Google, how many Tom Holland movies can you think of outside of Marvel? By the time Tobey Maguire put on the Spidey suit in 2002, he’d done “Pleasantville” and “The Cider House Rules.” The year after the first Sam Raimi-directed “Spider-Man,” Maguire was the lead in “Seabiscuit,” which was all over the Oscar campaign circuit.

We’ve yet to see if a Holland performance can break out beyond the Marvel Studios confines. He’s set to appear alongside Mark Wahlberg next year in “Uncharted,” a Sony Pictures movie based on a popular PlayStation video game franchise. Playing Fred Astaire in an upcoming biopic produced by Pascal could elevate Holland to a more prestigious category of film actor. He also has the Apple series “The Crowded Room” coming up.

Zendaya is arguably the bigger star, mostly thanks to her acclaimed performance on HBO’s “Euphoria,” not to mention her fashion work and recent supporting role in “Dune.” Parrot Analytics, which measures audience interest in terms of search traffic, social media chatter and other online metrics, ranks Zendaya as the world’s most in-demand actor after the “No Way Home” opening.

Previous Spider-Men — Maguire and Andrew Garfield — soared in the rankings as well. Holland ranked below at No. 6.

Tom Holland Zendaya star chart from Parrot Analytics
(Parrot Analytics)


Verdict: In the Marvel universe, the biggest cultural juggernaut in movies, there’s no doubt Holland is a mega-star. That’s a big deal. Beyond that, we’ll see.

Stray thought: Movie business traditionalists, when arguing for the superiority of the big screen over streaming, will often ask me to name an actor whom Netflix has made into a star. Easy answer: Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things.” Still, I get the point. With movies like “Red Notice,” “Don’t Look Up” and “Extraction,” it’s clear that stars raise the stature of Netflix productions. Does it go the other way around?

Best of 2021

photo collage of a CBS affiliate building, a Golden Globe statue, and an aerial photo of Bonanza Creek Ranch
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

My Company Town colleagues produced a number of investigative stories and other works of important journalism this year that had an effect on the town. Here’s some of our best stuff.

The Golden Globes under fire. Stacy Perman and Josh Rottenberg’s investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. renewed scrutiny over alleged self-dealing and a lack of Black members at the insular awards group. NBC decided not to air the show in 2022. The HFPA voted to enact reforms. The group announced nominations for next year’s awards this month. Here are the original stories on the HFPA’s questionable practices and its diversity problem.

Allegations of racism and misogyny at CBS’ television stations. After the exit of CBS Corp. chief Les Moonves amid sexual misconduct allegations, one unit of the company had failed to clean up its act, Meg James reported. A CBS Television Stations leaders allegedly cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists. There was also the matter of an unusual deal that scored one of the executives a pricey golf club membership. Following the story, CBS ousted TV Stations group president Peter Dunn and senior vice president of news David Friend.

ICM accused of tolerating sexual harassment and misconduct. Wendy Lee’s story put a microscope on one of Hollywood’s top agencies, which had largely avoided scrutiny during the #MeToo movement. Prominent agent and partner Steve Alexander left the Century City company less than three months after allegations about his behavior were raised in the story. In September, CAA agreed to acquire ICM. Deal terms were not disclosed.

Behind Hollywood glamour, an Instagram account highlights the darker side for workers. Anousha Sakoui’s story about an online outlet for overworked crew members foreshadowed how a fraught battle between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Hollywood studios would intensify throughout the year. The fight nearly resulted in the union going on strike for the first time.

The day Alec Baldwin shot Halyna Hutchins and Joel Souza. Still the best story you can read on the “Rust” tragedy.

Finally...

Maybe blame this on Omicron putting a damper on the holidays, but my taste in Christmas entertainment skewed toward the deranged this year. I appreciated that the Paul Rudd episode of “Saturday Night Live” — totally ruined by COVID — spoofed that horrible “Christmas Shoes” song. But nothing can top Patton Oswalt’s total disembowelment of “Christmas Shoes” in a comedy routine from 2009. It’s completely NSFW and makes me laugh every time. See you in 2022!


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