Tuesday, May 03, 2016

And the rich get richer

Celebrities continue to take over the world.

A recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (Yes, I read EW, what of it?) centered on celebrities getting “imprint” book deals with major publishers, in other words their own divisions within publishing empires. Literary giant Gwyneth Paltrow has launched Goop Press at Grand Central Publishing, just to mention one. Lena Dunham (of course), Reese Witherspoon, Chelsea Handler (dear God), Mindy Kaling (at least her books are very funny), and Johnny Depp are others. (Paltrow has said she won’t be editing, just assisting in procuring material. Wouldn’t you love to see J.K. Rowling getting editing notes from Gwyneth Paltrow?)

Good luck to promising new authors getting deals when Reese Witherspoon is available. I mean, it’s understandable. There is so much product and so many options for the consumer that major publishers feel they can cut through all the noise by presenting known entities who already have a fan base and can sell themselves. Hey, it’s just good business.

But the trend extends beyond book publishing. Try getting a play or musical on Broadway without stars. Even if it means Ashlee Simpson starring in CHICAGO (and no, that’s not a joke).

Full-length animated films are now voiced almost exclusively by big stars. Lots of terrific experienced animation voice people now have trouble making a living. Are you saying an animated movie won’t open unless Bridget Mendler does a voice? Or Casey Affleck, or Tempestt Bledsoe, or Anna Kendrick, or Leslie Mann, or Isla Fisher, or Winona Ryder, or Conchata Ferrell, or Cee Lo Green, or Molly Shannon, or Sean William Scott, or Peter Dinklage, or Joy Behar, or Rebel Wilson,or Jessica Chastain, or Frances McDormand, or Jada Pinkett Smith, or Taylor Swift, or Jeremy Piven, or Imelda Straunton, or Lea Michele?

Ditto for voice over commercials. You can’t sell your product without the pitchman being Will Arnett, Zach Braff, George Clooney, John Krasinski, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr., Mandy Patinkin, Tim Allen, David Duchovny? You can’t sell Pampers without Julianna Margulies? Normally I would say, “who cares?” but these celebrity endorsements are taking jobs away from voice over talent who are trying to support their families.

For the celebrities it’s a lark. Just a quick windfall. Julia Roberts goes into a studio, knocks out some copy for an hour and walks out with a bundle. I don’t blame the celebs. Julia Roberts didn’t hold a gun to the ad exec. Someone offers her a lot of money for very little effort she’d be nuts not to take it. And if she didn’t take it, they’d give it to Gwyneth Paltrow, not a voice over artist.

And I understand the appeal of celebrity endorsements IF you can recognize them. It’s one thing when June Allyson was on camera hawking Depends; it’s another when you just hear Julianna Margulies’ voice pitching Pampers. Two hundred seasoned voice-over actresses couldn’t do that Pampers spot just as well or better? And cheaper? I’m pretty sure Julianna Margulies is not getting scale.

Celebrities take advantage of the opportunities they’re afforded. Again, can’t fault them for that. For years TV stars have been given their own “production companies.” A few like Desi Arnaz, Danny Thomas, Henry Winkler, and Kelsey Grammer took them seriously and produced multiple series but most are just vanity companies. The stars get bored, or the hit show they’re on gets cancelled, or they realize there’s some actual “work” involved and they’re out of the producing game. Longtime writer/producer/creators have trouble getting development deals but co-stars get to hang their shingles.

Like I said, I totally get the reason for this trend. I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of non-celebs just trying to make a living.

Maybe I’ll write a book about it. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow is accepting submissions.

38 comments:

Heather Moore said...

AS I understand it Reese Witherspoon's deal is to publish material not write it. She's actually really well read. She recommends books via Instagram and they are decent picks.

Heather Moore said...

I actually couldn't find anything about Witherspoon getting a publishing imprint. She has a production company that acquires book rights (like Wild, Gone Girl, etc) but I couldn't find anything else.

Carol said...

I agree with all of this. Especially the bit about publishing. So many talented writers out there, and their books get lost in a sea of 'How to Eat Like a Someone From Another Planet' by Gweneth Paltrow. (not to mention dreck like '50 Shades of Grey, but that's a rant for another day)

Speaking of books, I hope your wife liked mine! :)



BA said...

"Maybe I’ll write a book about it."
Why not? The time is pretty damn ripe for it! Maybe a "Zoomar" style satire on the whole uh, situation. You've been a playwright; now step into the serene, stress-free world of novel publishing.

PatGLex said...

Agreed. About 95 percent of the time I can't identify the "star" pitching the product. Not sure what the marketing folks are thinking . . . And some of the time I can't tell who is voicing animation characters, even if I've read the cast list. [I have to watch the end credits of the movie to see if the names line up with who I thought voiced what character...]

Igor said...

Sir, how dare you!

Say what you will about any of those schmendricks you list, but how dare you besmirch the voice of Tempestt Bledsoe.

When I first saw/heard her on The [C-Word] Show, I loved her voice. Seriously. Though I can't say why. Maybe for me her voice is like Mary Hart's was for Kramer, but rather the opposite.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, sir, I shall assume you included her name simply for its own distinctive sound, and it does appear as the comically key third name you list. But otherwise, there is no excuse for your action here. (And besides, as far as I know it's not like she's making Joy Behar money these days.)

Curt Alliaume said...

I would wager most of the celebrity involvement with publishing companies is vanity as well. Having spent virtually all of my career in publishing, there are plenty of people who have spent their lives working their way up from the lowliest assistant to having their own imprint and/or editor in chief, but their names are unrecognized outside of publishing circles. If Gwyneth Paltrow or Lena Dunham can get people to buy books by slapping their name on a dust jacket, I'm all for it, no matter how unfair it may seem to the career people (who will be doing most of the actual work).

CRL said...

You can say the same thing about Sports.

All the pre-game and post-game panels seem to be filled with Hall of Famers who've made tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Does A-Rod really need to hustle to find a job when the Yankees are inevitably eliminated?

It's that well-spoken utility infielder who's got 35 Big League games on his resume who probably needs the gig.

Michael said...

For what it is worth, in the glory days of Warner Bros. cartoons, the story is that some celebrities would come in and do their voices, and the directors realized that for the purposes of animation, Mel Blanc did them better than they did themselves. There's great footage of Mark Hamill doing the voice of The Joker for the Batman animated series, and his facial gyrations. He understood that the voice had to carry things, and how the voice fit the character. Most of these big stars are just speaking as though they know you will know their voices. That isn't how it works.

By the way, if you decided to do a book for Gwyneth Paltrow and changed your mind, would that mean you had consciously uncoupled from her series?

Paul Duca said...

Which is proof God loves them more than me...

A. L. Crivaro said...

GOOP? Sounds like what drips out of Gwyneth Paltrow when her "inner aspect" becomes infected.

Stephen Marks said...

If they would just Paul Newman their profits to charity nobody would mind. The more bottles of salad dressing Paul sold the more charities benefited, a wonderful, simple business model. We could accept Peter Dinklage selling step ladders for Ace Hardware, Paltrow hawking her bottled farts as perfume for $250.00 an ounce, or George Clooney endorsing a line of Gary Grant suits. It wouldn't matter if Chelsea Handler was trying to be a sluttier Mae West to peddle books. It would be nice if Mandy Patinkin and Jeremy Piven were using their reps as being the two biggest butt holes in Hollywood to flog Preparation H, then teaming with June Alyson in a kind of CAA branding, packaging, Mike Ovitz a-hole synergy, as long as the money went to a good cause. And I don't mean a good "Hollywood cause" like that old age home for "C-listers", you know the one, where that chick who got her face rubbed with a grapefruit by James Cagney lives. I don't think Ken would have written this post if it was about Newman's Own instead of Paltrow's Own bank account.

Kirk said...

With all the cable channels and the Internet, and thus so many choices, you'd think "fame" would be kind of a thing of the past. Certainly star power has been diluted to a large degree. But I guess even niche celebrities can make money off fans, even if there's less of those fans than there used to be.

SharoneRosen said...

My head still hurts from beating it against the voice-over wall. I'd go up for animation parts (I'm a character voice kinda gal). The casting people wanted me, but the network would cast the famous name... over and over and over until I just gave up. I don't think my gall bladder will ever recover.

Jim said...

April Winchell put it very well on her sadly missed blog several years ago. As a voice artist you never really expect to get the big starring roles, but when the studios start hiring celebs for roles such as "litter bin that gets peed on by a dog" then the signs are writt pretty big on the wall.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Quite fortuitously, the Friday question I wanted to post anyway actually links to your blog post. Last night, out of curiosity, I bought a discounted ticket to Matthew Perry's play, THE END OF LONGING, which closes here in London on May 14 after a run that began on February 2. (Side query: when could they possibly have shot THE ODD COUPLE, airing now, when Perry's been doing eight shows a week in the West End for the last three months and presumably rehearsals before that?)

The British critics were not kind to Perry's play, which is about four FRIENDS-generation singles trying to find love. The audience (except for me, it has to be said) laughed throughout, and went bananas over Perry in the curtain calls. I agree with the Guardian critics, but that's not my question. In the middle of the play, its only memorable appears, said by a character who is about to give birth. She compares the process she's about to undergo to "taking your lower lip and pulling it over your head".

Now, probably all of us here know who said that: Carol Burnett, frequently repeated and cited by Bill Cosby in his comedy act. The character was of course in no position to attribute the joke, but it *really* bothered me to see it used without credit. Burnett herself is not famous here except for doing ANNIE, so it's doubtful many in the audience would have recognized the line. But...on the scale of joke reuse, which you've written about many times, where does this fall?

(Which reminds me that the season premiere of INSIDE AMY SCHUMER was so utterly non-funny that I wondered if her writers room had frozen after the allegations you wrote about.)

wg

Anonymous said...

CRL, ARod was considered an excellent announcer.

Cap'n Bob said...

How could you miss Morgan Freeman? He's in at least 50 commercials a night.

Adam said...

In publishing, celebrity imprints are an outgrowth of the success of Oprah's book club. Love Oprah or hate her (whatever happened to Hamid, anyway?), it's impossible to deny that her endorsement moved a lot of books. People who would otherwise have barely glanced at Of Mice and Men were rushing out to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of it, based on her word alone. It is, of course, naïve to think that success can be duplicated just by slapping any old celebrity's name on a book as an endorsement, but there's little to be lost by trying.

J Lee said...

As a corollary to the voice-over situation, if you've looked at the commercials for the animated "The Angry Birds Movie" (what? There's a live-action "The Angry Birds Movie"?) we're now so far into having celebrity voices do the characters that they have to show you the real celebs in the ad, based on, I suppose, the idea that while a movie based on a cellphone game might not have really fleshed out characters to start with, if you show everyone that Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon are in it, the ticket sales will roll in even if the film's a giant pile of bird poop.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Friday Question: Ken, as you know British shows do not have Writers Rooms, mostly because they have shorter series runs, and the penchant for Sorkin-type showrunners, plus a couple of freelancers to write everything. However, BBC is considering it. Would you prefer something like this if you had a limited Netflix type series or do you feel that comedy has to be done by the Writers Room? Thanks.

jcs said...

I fully agree with this post. Unfortunately there's economic logic behind these decisions. The George Foreman Grill was a sensational success that would have never been possible without its celebrity endorsement. But while Foreman never claimed he invented the grill, the tactics you describe devalue the work of many professionals. The celebrity claims to have discovered a great new author while all she did was select one out of ten manuscripts presented to her by an editor/literary talent scout. The same is probably true for most jewellry and fashion lines by celebrities.

Andrew said...

There are counter-examples. In the live-action Jungle Book, the actors did a fantastic job. And no doubt that helped draw in the crowds.

I mean, an unknown professional voice actor could probably have done a better job for Baloo the Bear. But knowing it was Bill Murray, playing himself in a very understated way, added to the charm. Same with Christopher Walken, etc.

And imagine if Eddie Murphy had stuck to voice acting after Mulan and Shrek, instead of turning out one bomb after another.

philip said...

@CRL

At least getting Arod to voice the games is his area of expertise. Hall of Famers probably know a lot about the game, so wanting their input on the game makes sense (regardless of whether they "need" the gig or not?)

Gwyneth Paltrow, however, knows sweet FA about literature/publishing.

estiv said...

Not to really disagree with what you're saying, but I can think of another factor at work in the larger situation. People like Julia Roberts and George Clooney came of an age in an era when becoming a big movie star meant that you could have lead roles in successful "serious" movies for the rest of your life. But if you compare the top box-office films of today with those of forty years ago, it's clear that things have changed drastically. Who goes to an Iron Man movie to see Gwyneth Paltrow, or even Robert Downey, Jr., really? Whereas Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep were a big part of the reason people went to see Kramer vs. Kramer in the first place. (And the fact that both Hoffman and Streep have by now done animated movies just reinforces the larger point.)

Something that has happened more than once in history is that a large group of people got driven off their territory into someone else's territory by invaders, climate change, or something else. The people whose territory they landed in then had to move themselves, thus displacing another group of people, etc. etc. etc. Something similar may be happening here. Big name actors want to work in big movies, but big serious live-action movies are an endangered species. If by working in the kind of movies that are big these days, like animated ones, the big name actors push aside those with less power, well, it's happened before. I'm not trying to defend it, and I also know it's not the only factor, but a changing environment in the movie world in general, in terms of what star power really counts for, could be part of what's going on.

gottacook@juno.com said...

The celebrity book-publishing imprint may be a new thing, but it seems to me that the celebrity book itself (especially when the author is an actor or comic) goes way back; the earliest one I can remember that became a real national success was Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes, but the genre goes back at least as far as Groucho and Me (wherein Groucho gives his own birth year as 5 years later than it was, but what the hell).

It may indeed be true that a recent celebrity book has displaced a lesser-known author's book in a given publisher's spring or fall lists, but as far as I know, there was never any such complaint about the Steve Martin book or others of its type.

With respect to hiring practices in animation, in general I concur, but personally I would never begrudge Frances McDormand any paid work.

Jason M. said...

Friday question: I've been re-watching Frasier episodes lately. Besides the great writing and acting, I am just amazed at Eddie (Moose the dog). Could you give us a behind the scenes look at how he was trained, what cues did he respond to, was his trainer just outside of camera view, etc? Did he ever get distracted by the antics on the stage, or by the audience reactions?

Pat Reeder said...

I remember when publishers would only put out angst-ridden novels by twentysomething yuppies who went to Bennington. Now, they only put out books by celebrities with Internet followings. I would consider the "Lena Dunham" or "Gwyneth Paltrow" imprints on a book as a warning to avoid, sort of like the pictures of diseased lungs they put on cigarette packages.

Having done a lot of voiceover work early in my radio career, I concur that the all-celeb VO trend is awful in many ways (I never warmed up to "Tootsie" because at the beginning, desperate actor Dustin Hoffman told his agent that he would "even" do voiceover work. I thought, "You'd be LUCKY to get voiceover work, a-hole!" That pissed me off for the rest of the movie.)

Walt Disney had a rule that the voices and personalities in his animated films were never to be taken from current celebrities because he realized that would quickly date his films. Today, the Golden Era Disney films seem timeless to each new generation partly because the characters stand on their own. We don't think, "Oh yeah, remember when James Cagney as Grumpy in 'Snow White' shoved that grapefruit into Dopey's face?" The closest Disney ever came to a celebrity voice was letting comic character actor Billy Gilbert do the sneezing for Sneezy.

These days, I look at animated movies that were made just ten or so years ago, and they already seem dated. Not only because they feature the voices of then-hot, now-passe flash-in-the-pan celebrities, but their characters were lazily based on those people's public images, too. As Frasier once said of Niles' attempts to act hip, it's like watching Bob Hope dressed up as the Fonz.

To estiv: I bought a ticket to the first "Iron Man" solely because Robert Downey Jr. was in it. But I admit I'm not Hollywood's target demographic. That's the only superhero movie I've paid to see since Tim Burton's second "Batman" movie, and I mostly went to that because I like penguins.

James said...

A Friday question for you. Comic stories and novels used to be big, before radio & tv drew off all the comedy writers. A surprising number of British tv comedy writers (Ben Elton, Simon Nye, David Nobbs all come to mind) wrote humor novels. Have you considered doing that yourself?

Chip Keyes said...

Thanks, this phenomenon has been driving me crazy. Maybe it's simply "as above, so below" in terms of society and the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth from Reagan onward. We always had wealthy big stars, I have no beef with that. But we also had supporting, guest stars, series regulars, character people etc. All making a living. Now... Show biz one-per centers, no middle class, fewer series regulars, and, instead, newbies/interns who'll do anything for little money to get a foot in the door. Me, I'm old enough to remember when there were middle class actors, writers, voice actors. In numbers. With families, reliable cars, houses or condos, pensions and health care. All professionals, solid, talented and reliable. Not rich but making a respectable living. Enter the accursed words "branding" and "vertical integration" along with the bean counters, suddenly most of those folks are leaving the business or LA altogether. As you say, it's hard to fault an actor for turning down a job. But one can fault casting and producer types who would rather say they hired Brad Pitt for a cartoon instead of auditioning one of the dozen talented voice actors who could have done as good a job or better. (I also remember when freelance writing used to be a profession instead of a euphemism.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Forgot to say: every time I see Paltrow's "Goop" thing it reminds me of Gelett Burgess's book GOOPS, AND HOW TO BE THEM: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants. It's out of copyright now, so the Gutenberg Project has it: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13004?msg=welcome_stranger

wg

John said...

The enormously talented voice actor Billy West has bemoaned the Hollywood practice of hiring A-list celebrities over actual voice artists(in order to sell the maximum amount of tickets, of course)in more than one interview I've heard with him. And he makes a good point: by doing that, the people who hire all these famous celebrities instead of people who are voice actors for a living, they are not only taking jobs away from them, but also - at least I think - depriving the audience of the chance to hear these people do their incredible work. The day that someone hires the voices of Brad Garrett or Jerry Seinfeld (much as I like and respect both) over Billy West or Maurice LaMarche for an animated film is a sad day.

If you remember Billy West on the radio as I do on WBCN in Boston, you may clearly recall him doing Ronald Reagan & The Three Stooges, Ed McMahon, Richard Nixon, and a ton of other voices to a "T" all in one shot when they were talking to him and for skits. The guy is amazing. At least he's still the red M&M!

Jason said...

"And imagine if Eddie Murphy had stuck to voice acting after Mulan and Shrek, instead of turning out one bomb after another."

I think a corollary to this article is that occasionally you'll get celebrities who find that they're actually well suited to voice acting, and their performance, rather than just their name, lifts the production.

Alan C said...

Regarding celebrities doing cartoon voices: I saw Jack Black recently talking about how he'd traveled to China to promote "Kung Fu Panda 3." He said there was no real reason for him to be there since not even his voice is in the Chinese release--it's done by a Chinese actor!

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Perfect example of celebrity overload: Last year there was an animated movie called "HOME".
It starred Jim Parsons as an outcast alien, and the narrator. His voice is so unique that it fit, and he's the main star.
Steve Martin was the crazy leader alien. No need for him to be there.
Rihanna (!) was the other main character. A 10 year old girl. This character could have been played by anyone. Although, it did give the movie license to play Rihanna's songs throughout.
And finally Jennifer Lopez played Rihanna's mom. Again, no reason for her to get the job. It was a standard character.

Andy Rose said...

My understanding is that Billy West's big gripe is not necessarily that he's not getting cast in top-line film roles. He's not naive about that. But he claims that studios will "audition" voice actors for a feature role knowing that they aren't actually going to cast them. Then, he alleges, the studios will cast stars and play them the demo tracks from the pros' auditions to guide their performances. It's much like how music producers sometimes have a background singer record a "guide vocal" to help a pop star hear what the producer wants. But in the case of the cartoons, the "auditioning" actors don't get paid for their work, which is what makes Billy very upset.

It's not fair to lump Brad Garrett in with other "celebrity casting" choices. He's been an established voice artist since the mid-80s, long before people knew him on Everybody Loves Raymond.

I've mentioned this before, but the most absurd celebrity voice casting is in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. Once you speed up the voices to make the "chipmunk" sound, everybody sounds basically the same.

Mike said...

Top commenter award goes to @AndyRose for the insightful comments. @StephenMarks is also working hard, if that's not patronising.

I'll defend Imelda Staunton in that she may only recently have come to the attention of Hollywood, but she's been starring in radio plays since the '80s. I recall listening to Up the Garden Path back then. British actors tend to constantly switch between stage/TV/film/radio.

estiv said...

James: www.mustkilltv.com