Every new type of entertainment makes its own heroes. Silent movies launched the pantomime masters Chaplin and Keaton. The talkies ushered in the distinctive voices of Cagney, Hepburn, and Grant. TV elevated Lucy and Uncle Miltie, whose chummy accessibility fit right into America's living rooms. And now it's video's turn.
Just as watching a movie at home on your VCR is different from sitting in the multiplex, video's most popular actors are not necessarily the same ones who have become stars of the big screen. The names Brian Dennehy, Patrick Dempsey, and Tom Selleck may mean precious little at the movie box office, but each has millions of fans who hungrily rent their cassettes every week. They're members of America's new and still almost secret celebrity class the stars of video.
Take James Belushi, for one striking example. Three of his most recent films on video K-9, The Principal, and Real Men have been rented by some 41 million people, which is nearly three times as many as saw them in theaters. Whoopi Goldberg has done even better at home. The video audience for her pre-Ghost comedy-action movies (Jumpin' Jack Flash, Burglar, and Fatal Beauty) is approaching four times the size of their audience in theaters. Most dramatically of all, martial-arts star Jean Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Cyborg have quintupled their audience on tape. While none of these actors is knocking superstars like Mel Gibson off either their movie- house or video-store thrones, each has a far larger home audience than their box office statistics would suggest.
Much of the difference between movie and video stars has to do with differing expectations. When you plunk down $7.50 per ticket at the box office, you want your money's worth in grand entertainment. Because video is literally low-rent, you're more apt to settle for less, or at least smaller. ''In the theatrical market, great acting is not necessarily as critical as great action, style, or effects,'' Hollywood producer Lauren Lloyd (Mermaids) says. ''There's more room in the video market for interesting actors in interesting roles.''
Then, too, there's the time frame difference. In theaters, a movie has at best a week to establish itself, or it's dead in the water. On tape, the same film can leisurely build up an audience for months and a star can develop a following over a course of years.
Another consideration, and one that helps explain why the bulk of the video stars are men, is that couples remain a major part of the movie-theater audience and, as research has shown, women usually choose which movies to see. That leaves uncuddly performers like Van Damme and James Woods holding the short end of the box office stick. Home video, however, is as suited to solo viewing as to watching with family or friends. By the same token, films so female-oriented that women can't even drag their dates to them like Bette Midler's tearjerkers Stella and Beaches really come to soggy life when they hit the video shelves.
Because the video audience parallels the whole population more closely than it does the teens and couples that make up the bulk of moviegoers, video stars aren't a single group but several, each appealing to a different type of viewer. There are the reliable ol' pros such as Woods, Dennehy, Gene Hackman, and Bob Hoskins; there are such quirky up-and-comers as Ellen Barkin, Dennis Quaid, and Holly Hunter; there are comics, notably John Candy and Whoopi Goldberg; and there are such sheer oddities as Patrick Dempsey and Mickey Rourke. Not surprisingly, some former TV stars also fare well on cassette: Tom Selleck's movie career may have been dismissed as a bust, but his Her Alibi and An Innocent Man are renting very well, thank you.
The purest of all video stars are surely the stalwarts of the action film Van Damme, Rutger Hauer, Michael Paré, and Michael Dudikoff. ''These people became stars on video, because of video,'' says Steve Berns, president of the RKO Warner video-store chain. ''They don't need advertising. They don't need to be on magazine covers. If their names are on the tape boxes, they'll be rented every night of the year.''
Occasionally, success on video can actually launch a performer to greater film celebrity, especially in the action genre. ''Video fans embraced Arnold Schwarzenegger long before Maria Shriver, and they first discovered Steven Seagal,'' says Jonathan Sheinberg, coproducer of Seagal's Hard to Kill. ''It was the video market that indicated that this guy Seagal has a following, and his theatrical career has just been a reaction to that. Basically, Steven Seagal was made by video.''
Outside of action movies, many of the performers most popular on video look less like movie idols than like folks at the mall. As Hoskins says, ''Movie stars are all glamorous. I'm a homely sort of bird, really. If I've got success of a certain kind, I think it's because I come off as a very ordinary person. I could turn up to fix your television.'' Brian Dennehy sees the issue less lightheartedly. ''They want Richard Gere to do everything, or Rob Lowe,'' he grouses. ''Movie stardom is a fraternity, and the entrance requirements are the box office reports and nothing else.'' Now the entrance exam is changing. ''Because of video and also the European market, there are serious movies being made,'' Dennehy says, ''and actors like myself get good roles, because the babies can't do them.''
As video's idiosyncratic star system continues to emerge, producers and performers (as well as video retailers) are racing to come to grips with the meaning of it all. Says Lisa Hansen, a producer of such video hits as Cold Steel and Relentless, ''It's absolutely essential to look at a star's video potential today, because the video dollars can easily be equal to the theatrical dollars.''
Some theatrical releases have even become little more than promotional tools for the eventual video release, according to an executive with a major video label. ''The guys in theatrical would have me fired for admitting this,'' says the executive, ''but we all get together and coordinate the theatrical and video releases, and sometimes the theatrical release is just a way of exposing the public to a title which we all know will really do most of its business on cassette.''
From the actors' point of view, the shift in how the public views movies is more than an aesthetic issue; it's a money matter. Since performers don't share in the profits from cassette rentals, actors are grumbling about the dollars-and-cents downside of video success. In response to requests by its members, the Screen Actors Guild is currently forming a new ''residuals commission'' to study the impact of video on performers' incomes. ''We really have to look at video in a new light,'' proclaims SAG president Barry Gordon.
He's a little late, of course: The video audience has been looking at movie stars in a new light for a decade now. Video stardom is increasingly influencing which movies are made and who is in them. The big-screen appeal of the glamour gods will always lure us into darkened theaters, but the stars of the VCR are people we enjoy welcoming into our homes. They may not be Tom Cruise or Michelle Pfeiffer, but that is exactly the point.
NEXT PAGE: Stats on the video All-Stars, including James Belushi, Patrick Dempsey, and Bette Midler