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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Public Cinemy No. 1: The rise of the biopic and the death of the A-lister

In the streaming era, film studios have turned to biopics to attract audiences.


Bohemian Rhapsody. “Blonde. “Oppenheimer.” The Iron Claw.” Rocketman.” “Maestro.” Elvis.” Priscilla.” Napoleon.” Ferrari.” Nyad.” All are films that came out in the last six years, and all are films that denote Hollywood’s staggering obsession with biopics. Biopics have always been a staple in American cinema, but their explosion in recent years is a Band-Aid over the fatal wounds dealt to Hollywood by streaming.

Something many habitual movie watchers have noticed over the past decade or so is that the popularity of the mid-budget film has declined. A mid-budget film costs roughly between $5 million and $70 million, enough to create a drama, comedy or character study with one or two big-name actors. But, it’s not enough for the eye-watering spending on visual effects, intellectual property and a full cast of Hollywood stars seen in, say, a $300 million Marvel movie. Movies make back most of their budget through theater ticket sales and, importantly for mid-budget films, DVD sales. But in the streaming era, consumers today are much less likely to visit movie theaters, knowing they can watch the film for cheap when it comes out on Hulu. And buying a $15 DVD in a time when many people don’t own a DVD player? Forget it.

Because streaming has made it so cheap to watch films, studios need to market their products as a spectacle — something you just have to watch in theaters. Think “Avengers: Endgame”, “Barbie” or “Dune: Part Two” … not so much films along the lines of “Pulp Fiction” or “When Harry Met Sally”. As a result, the death of physical media has spelled the decline of non-franchise, mid-budget films.

So where does the biopic come in? To ensure ticket sales, studios must create films centered around recognizable media and figures. The power of name recognition is what led to the dominance of franchises and superhero movies, and it extends to real-life people as well. The average 21st-century moviegoer might not bother to go see a character study on a struggling actress, but they will more likely be drawn in if that struggling actress happens to be Marilyn Monroe. Studios can be more confident that biopics, both mid-budget and high-budget, sensationalized ones like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” will sell enough theater tickets to turn a profit.

The second reason I believe biopics have become more popular is less evidence-based and more philosophical. In our post-streaming, post-social media world, culture has become increasingly fragmented. Instead of watching the same TV channels, seeing the same films in theaters and hearing the same bands on the radio, people are increasingly separated by the surplus of content we are able to consume. The result is the death of the A-lister; fame across generations has almost ceased to exist. Just like our grandparents and our parents, we all know Leonardo DiCaprio, but scarcely anyone older than a millennial has heard the name Timothée Chalamet.

As culture becomes more fragmented, A-listers are becoming rarer, and fame is an increasingly valuable and elusive commodity. In my view, this is driving fascination with figures of older generations who were able to achieve lasting, generational fame. In the 1970s, a household name was a difficult-to-achieve yet recognized, attainable label. In 2024, household names are elevated to increasingly godlike, unreachable status. It’s possible no one will ever reach the same level of fame as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis again, so we’re settling for recreating them through film.