Celebrity Appeals and First-Look Deals: A new studio system?

A film camera
Ed Farley

Reese Witherspoon. Robert Patterson. Brad Pitt. Tina Fey. Drew Barrymore. The list keeps growing. Ed explores the rise of celebrity first-look deals. 

These names work together in terms of celebrity gravitas. From their names being related to large franchises and cult classics to their ability to wield headlines; a name in the industry reliant on star power is like fairy dust. It’s only natural for these big names to capitalise on this. If you’re an actor with a big name, you get a bigger salary. It’s a rule of the game. Taking it one step further, this capitalisation doesn’t just provide celebrities agency over their bankroll, but from the content they may produce off camera. 

For the studio system that was seen as so oppressive, has been repurposed today arguably in the form of celebrity deals

Celebrities have been no strangers to creating their own production companies. In fact, it has run throughout Hollywood’s industry- a notable example being Lucile Ball, who became one of the first major female producers of her time with Desilu Productions. Sick of not being paid her worth, Ball decided to pay it herself by producing the content she wanted to star in, as opposed to being subjugated to not playing such roles within larger production companies. This is ironic, for the studio system that was seen as so oppressive, has been repurposed today arguably in the form of celebrity deals that will be explored below. 

In the studio system, actors would sign contracts with studios for their face and participation as opposed to movie by movie. On one hand, this was good as it gave job security, but it was also bad. Anything from their public image, appearance and personal lives- was at the discretion of producers. On a business level, it aided companies. 

With the notion of celebrities being created tenfold by classic Hollywood, fans of a certain star would watch anything they starred in, and if this was the case- they would exclusively be buying into a subconscious deal with the studios themselves; as a Joan Crawford picture for example- would once by implication, be an MGM exclusive picture.  

Celebrities can forge their brands from social media use, social currency and profit from nostalgia.

Actresses like Lucille Ball pioneered having freedom from these shackles, even Marilyn Monroe having a stab at it too. Their work pays off now, where in today’s climate, a big name now provides bigger opportunities and freedom over the content offered to them, a luxury seldom offered in the classical Hollywood period. In the social media age, name as currency is even bigger. Instead of the close curation of celebrities by PR teams from studios, celebrities can forge their brands from social media use, social currency and profit from nostalgia.

Reese Witherspoon is known for cult classic films such as Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions and even an Oscar win. Like actors before her, working alongside Hollywood’s framework, she wielded commercial and critical success. From this success, she knows all too well how the industry works, acknowledging she can be more than the celebrity status afforded to her by the media. The proof is found in her production company, HelloSunshine, a successful company founded in 2016. From her experience in the industry as a woman who became a storyteller through her work, and seeing how stories were made, her company brings “original, distinctive, entertaining and important women-centred stories into the light”. HelloSunshine adapts stories to the screen and it’s done so with great success. 

This is clear looking at their produced content. From Gone Girl, Big Little Lies, The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere (the latter three starring Witherspoon), not only does good content come from this brand, but it also does so because it is spearheaded by someone who knows how to use her voice, talents, and social capital to create art. It would be reductive to condense the company’s success down to Witherspoon’s name alone, for the story’s writers and the diverse team behind the camera have a sizeable role in its content. 

However, it is undeniable that the process of Hollywood has a large part of why the production company is now estimated to be worth around $900 Million Dollars. Though Witherspoon hasn’t necessarily got a first look deal, (her content spans from Apple TV+ and HBO), it is important to investigate how a success story like HelloSunshine’s is useful in exploring how celebrity gravitas helps business ventures. 

As celebrity production companies grow, so do their opportunities. Importantly, and more frequently, a first-look deal isn’t just a lucrative prospect for creators like writers or producers. Arguably, the line between “creator” and “celebrity” is increasingly becoming blurred because of this….

So, what is a ‘First-Look Deal’? How do big names come into it?

A first-look deal is an agreement with an individual or production company that a distributor gets the first rights to any content in development from said creators. They also get the ability to turn it down first too, before it’s shopped elsewhere. Traditionally, if a producer is known for lucrative sales or content, a company would want to have a first choice over their work so they could also cash in from their success. But now, removed from content alone, with notable figures having their own companies, viewers will be more interested in what they offer. 

Robert Pattinson is a recent example of someone who has signed a production deal with Warner Bros. Though he hasn’t produced anything yet, his success as Batman has moved eyes not only to his work as an actor but what he can do next. His relationship with the studio s a large component in how it makes it possible for him to have a producing deal next to large names known in the industry such as Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes, both who work with deals made with Netflix. 

Though Rhimes and Murphy still have projects with other production companies from pre-existing shows, any current content is handled by the streaming giant. From Murphy’s Glee and American Horror Story or Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy or Bridgerton– the creators are more synonymous with being creators than all their projects themselves.

Subsequently, creators of content are uplifted to celebrity status, almost doing a reversal of what Witherspoon or Pattinson have experienced. Like HelloSunshine, Murphy made history being one of the highest-paid showrunners by inking a 300 million deal with Netflix to produce content for them– something that usually makes headlines akin to that of an actor when they sign on to do a movie. This is evidenced even in how Grey’s Anatomy got so popular that its title card eventually featured the line “created By Shonda Rhimes” after its titleThough like with any story, its author should be present. Industrially- the optic emphasised the success attributed to its creator; her name was emblazoned just like the casts were.

Whatever way you look, the appeal of content is often just as much about the creators and the voices creating the content as the content itself. Though critical success is like catnip for companies to enjoy, the main cat food to sustain the cats in suits will always be the cash produced from audiences’ viewership. Regardless of quality (creators inevitably have some shows that receive lesser reception than others), it is the idea that a project helmed by a reliable creator is worth large sums. 

It will be interesting to see if a production deal is a genuine deal or a vanity project to further commercialise a first and last name.

The vision of production arguably could be seen halfway there from the promotional value of a face. The comparisons to the studio system argue that just like most of Hollywood’s main aims, the system will always find new forms elsewhere. Yet there is the question of trends, where it will be interesting to see if a production deal is a genuine deal or a vanity project to further commercialise a first and last name. HelloSunshine, Shondaland, Ryan Murphy Productions and others fall into the first category- but with trends always having to follow an uphill battle to stay relevant (examples include celebrity beauty brands and perfume houses), it will be of future debate when more inevitable moves come from the woodwork.

Ed Farley

Featured image courtesy of Sam Moghadam Khamseh via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article video 1 courtesy of Amazon Prime Video UK via YouTube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In article video 2 courtesy of Forbes via YouTube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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