Are movie stars losing their power in the film business? At the AFM as well as in the executive offices of the studios, the appetite is for high concepts and visionary film-makers over pricey star vehicles.

Did you go and see Inception because Leonardo DiCaprio was the star? Or because it was the new film by Christopher Nolan? I am guessing that most people would say the latter.

DiCaprio is a wonderful actor, of course, and a bankable film star but, in this instance, he was added value to the star film-maker rather than the factor which got the film made or which persuaded people to leave their home.

Inception of course came just months after the ultimate film-maker-as-star movie Avatar became the highest grossing picture in history. Yes, Sam Worthington was the lead actor in the film but most red carpet photography focused on Cameron or the sexagenarian supporting actress, the always glamorous Sigourney Weaver.

“Never before has there been such intent focus on film-makers as the key publicity driver for the films they have made”

The Social Network was another phenomenon of sorts. With no above-the-line movie stars to focus on, the media directed their attention to press-shy director David Fincher and star writer Aaron Sorkin.

It seems that never before has there been such intent focus on film-makers as the key publicity driver for the films they have made. That might sound like common sense, but the reality in the history of cinema is that movie stars have traditionally been the de facto spokespeople for the film – the marketing mouthpiece for magazine cover interviews or at press events.

Looking at some of the biggest titles of 2011, the most enticing prospects are from star directors. Michael Bay is back with Transformers 3, Martin Scorsese will unveil his first 3D film Hugo Cabret, Steven Spielberg has, count them, two films released at the end of the year – The War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn, the latter another collaboration with another super-director Peter Jackson. And David Fincher has an end-of-year treat in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Stars are not the marketing key in these films. The concepts are large, the budgets are big, the actors are fine but the director is front and centre.

So where does that leave the star system?

The notion of movie stars as key components in selling and marketing films has been sustained in large part by the independent market. Indie film packaging and pre-sales have always required movie stars in films of a certain budget to act as guarantees for investors and buyers; if a buyer stumps up a big minimum guarantee for a US film, he would prefer a big film star to act as an ancillary cushion should the theatrical fail.

Leap of faith

As the American Film Market (AFM) opened its doors in Santa Monica yesterday (November 3), plenty of stars were being rolled out to tantalize buyers including George Clooney (in Exclusive’s The Ides Of March), Brad Pitt (in Inferno’s Coogan’s Trade) and Nicolas Cage (in Hyde Park International’s Ghost Rider 2).

But there are a growing number of bigger budget films available at AFM which aren’t driven by stars at all, but require buyers to take a leap of faith based on concept and director.

IM Global is pitching a $65m movie called Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, a feature of the BBC series to combine live action and CG-animation. Lionsgate is launching young adult franchise The Hunger Games based on Suzanne Collins’ books in which a young girl is the lead character. And producer Howard Kaplan and Kathy Morgan International are touting a $47m family movie called Odd Thomas directed by Stephen Sommers and based on Dean Koontz’s novel series which will focus on a 20 year-old short order cook.

Meanwhile all around Los Angeles, billboards advertise Skyline, a no-star FX-driven alien invasion adventure from The Brothers Strause which is getting a blockbuster-style release from Universal and Relativity. IM Global handled international sales.

International distributors are looking to new types of films to energise demanding audiences looking for originality and visceral excitement. Like the studios, they will pay big bucks for concept and director. Their appetite on pricey film stars, however, is not as voracious as it used to be.