Star System


Stars function in three main ways within the culture and commerce of popular cinema. First, as performers who appear in films, stars are part of the aesthetic or symbolic content of films. Alongside films, movie stars also appear in other media, like television or radio advertisements, posters, and magazine interviews. Film stars are therefore always presented to the public as mediated identities—what is often referred to as a star's "image." Second, stars are a part of the labor force involved in making films. In an industrial model of film production, filmmaking is organized according to a specialized division of labor, with performers just one category of labor distinct among the various technical and crafts roles. However, not all performers are equal, and the greater artistic and economic power enjoyed by stars means they top a hierarchical structure of film actors as a privileged category of labor. This power is linked to the third way in which stars function in cinema. Stars are employed not only as a source of labor for making films but also as a key resource for use in their promotion. Film producers cast stars to expand the profile of the film in the cultural marketplace, making the star a form of investment or capital deployed in anticipation of future profits.

These three functions—image, labor, and capital—are linked in film stardom. Star images are formed not only through repetition of a performer's identity across films and other media, but also through the differences represented between those images. In the commerce of cinema, star images can be deployed in marketing campaigns to attract audiences by promoting an individuated range of meanings—for example, "a Jack Nicholson film"—offering the repetition of qualities seen in previous performances, while also differentiating a film from the many other star-driven popular titles in the marketplace. Through repetition and difference, star images therefore produce a marketable form of individuality that is fundamental to the star's status as capital. As Janet Staiger has observed in The Classical Hollywood Cinema , stars can be described as "a monopoly on a personality" (p. 101).

Ownership and control of that monopoly is organized through the contracting of star labor. For a single film, a series of films, or for a period of time, stars sign contracts with producers agreeing to the terms under which they will provide their labor. Contracts outline the terms by which the producer or distributor can profit from the rights to use the star's name or likeness in other contexts, such as promotional media or possibly tie-in products. Contracts also detail agreed terms by which the star is to be remunerated for his or her labor, either through a regular salary over a period of time or by payment of a straight fee for a number of films, possibly combined with a share in the future profits of a film. Contracts are therefore central to the operation of stardom as a system for they document in concrete form the ownership and control of stars as image, labor, and capital.

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