An ensemble cast is made up of cast members in which the principal actors and performers are assigned roughly equal amounts of importance and screen time in a dramatic production. In Hollywood, the term has recently begun to be misused as a replacement for the old term "all-star cast"; meaning a film with many well-known actors, even if most of them only have minor roles, such as cameo appearances.
The structure of an ensemble cast contrasts with the popular Hollywood centralization of a sole protagonist, as the ensemble leans more towards a sense of “collectivity and community.”
Ensemble casts in film were introduced as early as September 1916, with D. W. Griffith's silent epic film, Intolerance featuring four separate, though parallel plots. The film follows the lives of several characters over hundreds of years, across different cultures and time periods. The unification of different plot lines and character arcs is a key characteristic of ensemble casting in film; whether it's a location, event, or an overarching theme that ties the film and characters together.
Films that feature ensembles tend to emphasize the interconnectivity of the characters, even when the characters are strangers to one another. The interconnectivity is often shown to the audience through examples of the "six degrees of separation" theory, and allows them to navigate through plot lines using cognitive mapping. Examples of this method where the six degrees of separation is evident in films with an ensemble cast, would be in productions such as Babel, Love, Actually and Crash, which all have strong underlying themes interwoven within the plots that unify each film.
Other forms of narrative for films with ensemble casts having more or less equal amounts of screen time is demonstrated in recent productions such as The Avengers, where the cast and their characters have already been established in individual films prior to its release. In The Avengers, there is no need for a protagonist in the feature as each character shares equal importance in the narrative, successfully balancing the ensemble cast. Referential acting is a key factor in executing this balance, as ensembles, "play off each other rather than off reality". Other films with collaborative ensemble casts include X-Men, Black Hawk Down, The Lord of the Rings and Reservoir Dogs.
Ensemble casting also became more popular in television series because it allows flexibility for writers to focus on different characters in different episodes. In addition, the departure of players is less disruptive to the premise than it would be if the star of a production with a regularly structured cast were to leave the series. The TV Show Cheers is an archetypal example of an ensemble cast occurring in an American sitcom. Ensemble casts of 20 or more actors are common in soap operas, a genre that relies heavily on the character development of the ensemble. The genre also requires continuous expansion of the cast as the show progresses, with soap operas such as Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful staying on air for decades.
In recent years, there have been numerous successes for television in ensemble casting; the most notable being the epic fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones. The Emmy Award winning show features one of the largest ensemble casts on the small screen. The series is notorious for major character deaths, resulting in constant changes within the ensemble.
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