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Festival of Books: A candid look at Hollywood's bright lights (and stars)

May 2, 2011 |  1:58 pm

HW Unabashed candor drew an abundance of laughs and a few gasps during Sunday’s Festival of Books session “Hollywood: Under the Bright Lights.” L.A. Times staff writer Steven Zeitchik led panelists in a lively conversation centering on various shifts in Hollywood, from the changing nature of celebrity to the increasing use of digital effects in movies. 

Discussing the new definition of celebrity, panelist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an assistant professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, noted that while social media outlets such as YouTube have broken barriers to entry and launched a handful of celebrities such as pop star Justin Beiber, this new type of fame is more fleeting.

Currid-Halkett’s most recent book, "Starstruck," contemplates how society and economy intersect in the phenomenon of celebrity. The professor predicted that there will be a correction to this new celebrity model, which is oversaturated with “permutations of celebrity” and is at odds with “something that inherently is supposed to be elite.”

At the same time, she reflected on how the changing media landscape has made A-list stars more accessible -- and our reaction to that shift. “Their banality has become so compelling to us. We are so excited about the photos of them buying coffee.”   

Legendary stuntman and director Hal Needham, whose helming credits include "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run" and whose autobiography, "Stuntman!," recounts his misadventures on set, drew the most laughs from the audience with his old-school approach to filmmaking.

Needham shrugged off the question of celebrity –- something he had little use for in his line of behind-the-scenes work –- and switched the topic to the use of digital effects in filmmaking. He feels that even the most advanced computer-generated imagery cannot replace the authenticity inherent in physical action. As an example, he recounted a recent visit to a 3-D film set that had “CGI up the kazoo” but had failed to get “even one shot” after half a day of shooting. 

Staying on the same note, Rebecca Keegan, Times staff writer and author of a biography of director James Cameron called "The Futurist," discussed Cameron’s use of CGI. While the "Avatar" director is known as a progressive pioneer of digital effects, Keegan believes he still strives to achieve a balance between physical action and digital effects so that what is on screen remains believable to the audience.

Currid-Halkett brought the conversation back to the changing dynamics of celebrity, discussing how increasingly little star power actually matters in getting audiences into theater seats. This downward trend, should it continue, would cause stars to lose the ability to command large salaries.

The professor said studios are lamenting “the demise of the great Hollywood star that you can count on to drum up box-office receipts.” Rather, it is the ebb and flow of a celebrity’s persona that will determine his or her box office profitability. She cited "The Tourist," starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, as a reflection of this outdated model -- one in which the pairing of bona fide A-listers is expected to directly translate into financial success. Instead, the film was a box office failure -- and “one of the worst movies” she had ever seen.

The tone of frankness continued when Keegan responded to Zeitchik’s query as to whether actors are aware of their waning dependability. “I’m not sure how conscious actors are in general,” Keegan said matter-of-factly. “They’re a unique breed,” she continued amid slight gasps and giggles from the audience. “They tend to be very in the moment, and that’s part of what makes them very good at their jobs, but they don’t, I think, spend a lot of time reflecting on their role in society.”

Needham agreed with Keegan and associated the lack of awareness with overinflated salaries, which he blamed on the studios. Needham bemoaned the inflation of production costs, revealing that the 10 films he had directed had cost a cumulative $114 million, a modest sum relative to today’s gargantuan studio budgets, but have grossed $1.3 billion to date.

His formula for success? “If you put action and comedy together, I think you own people.” Needham returned to his story of the aforementioned set visit, revealing that it was the set of "Spiderman 4," and predicted that the $350-million budget meant the film would have to do $1.5 billion in box office receipts just to break even. “No chance that movie’ll make any money,” he projected.

In closing, Zeitchik asked Currid-Halkett what she found to be the most captivating celebrity case study. “The Jolie-Pitt spectacle,” she answered. Citing that while most celebrities have a lifespan of three years in which they have the attention of tabloid covers, Jolie and Brad Pitt’s relationship has defied that norm.

Currid-Halkett attributed this to the fact that even after all this time, “we don’t know what’s really going on” and that the consistent attention the couple receive may be at least be partially due to Jolie’s ability to re-create her celebrity. “She had a vial of blood around her neck less than a decade ago and now she’s a humanitarian. So that’s quite an arc.”

-- Dima Alzayat

Photo: From left, L.A. Times staff writer Steven Zeitchik with panelists Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Hal Needham and Rebecca Keegan. Credit: Dima Alzayat