The New Hollywood System: Breaking Down the Current Definition of a Movie Star
Instead of an "A-list," the faces of today's franchises are measured in buzz -- with top dollar now a $10 million payday, half the old standard.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Call it the $10 million kiss. That's how much Kristen Stewart stands to lose if Universal decides not to go ahead with a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, which has earned $389 million globally -- and the actress' now-infamous tryst with director Rupert Sanders may be a large factor.
Stewart is one of the few rising stars to have reached the $10 million mark. (At press time, Jennifer Lawrence was close to getting roughly $10 million for The Hunger Games follow-up, Catching Fire; while Snow White's Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth, boosted by his roles in Marvel's Thor and The Avengers, also will earn $10 million if the Snow White sequel goes ahead.) But Stewart's precariousness at the top -- despite the global punch of the Twilight franchise, which brought her $25 million as well as healthy backend deals for the series' final two films -- shows how vulnerable she is, like most of those on Hollywood's new A-list.
The era is long past when a star like Tom Cruise could launch a career with Risky Business and Top Gun, then stay in the stratosphere for decades. None of the new stars gets the once-standard "20-against-20" deal -- that is, $20 million upfront and 20 percent of the studio's take from exhibitors, after they make that $20 million back. Today, stars are seen as disposable, or at least interchangeable. As one top studio executive ruminates, "What major star has emerged in the past five years?"
Aside from Channing Tatum -- who weathered a bunch of flops before scoring with The Vow, 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike -- the answer just might be none. Rather than an A-list, it might be better to think of a "hot list," in the words of one mega-agent: "That's what it is -- the guys you hope will last because nobody's shown they can do that just yet."
Asks Twilight producer Marty Bowen: "How many times have we anointed actors and actresses stars before they've actually become stars? People said Brandon Routh would be a superstar after Superman Returns. Well?" (Routh is starring in one of CBS' fall sitcoms, Partners.)
Executives, producers, lawyers and agents interviewed for this article -- many speaking off the record -- agree that Tatum, 32, stands at the pinnacle, able to command $10 million for Roland Emmerich's actioner White House Down.
"I don't know that anyone else has kicked into that kind of gear; the Twilight and Harry Potter stars haven't," says producer and former Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic. "But movies make movie stars; very few actors can rise above that."
While many studios have individual preferences for actors (Warners is betting on Tom Hardy for the new Mad Max, while Sony is happy to be in bed with Spider-Man's Emma Stone), every studio wants Tatum -- so much that he's booked solid for the next year.
In some ways, Tatum defies the rules that have become de rigueur for most actors aspiring to join this quicksilver new A-list: First, make sure you have critical credibility, either through an art house hit or an Oscar nomination; then link yourself to a franchise; and finally, prove your movies can deliver in the overseas market, which now attracts 69 percent of the overall box office.
Lawrence has done all of that, getting an Oscar nomination for the tiny film that propelled her to fame, Winter's Bone. She then boosted her standing with X-Men: First Class and finally defined herself as a fully fledged star in The Hunger Games, which has earned $684 million worldwide. The $10 million or so she'll make for the sequel is 20 times the $500,000 she got paid upfront for Games -- a figure that has become a benchmark for actors taking the lead in launching most non- Marvel franchises.
Many of those are near-unknowns, like Andrew Garfield when he was signed for The Amazing Spider-Man. Insiders say Garfield, who was best known for co-starring in The Social Network, received the now-standard $500,000 upfront while Stone might have earned as much as $2 million. The actress has followed a similar path to Lawrence -- breaking out in 2007's Superbad and hitting it big with 2009's Zombieland and 2010's Easy A before landing in The Help and Spider-Man.
One actress who has taken a different route while still making it to the new A-list is Jessica Chastain, who has been Oscar-nominated for The Help and has worked with Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life but has never been in a blockbuster, nor appears to desire one; she even turned down a sci-fi epic -- Oblivion, opposite Cruise -- and pulled out of Iron Man 3. "Her career choices are different," says one executive. "She just doesn't seem to want to make those films."
In fact, Chastain illustrates how A-lists -- whether new or old -- contain two distinct subcategories: those who demonstrate box-office prowess and those who attract top-tier talent. "Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis are A-listers, but they are not bankable," explains Bowen. "They are lightning rods for attracting other talent."
Although franchise gigs such as Twilight and Potter can help a star rack up hits, they also can lead to his or her decline. In the wake of Spider-Man 3 -- and the $20 million payday -- Tobey Maguire hasn't had another big hit. Indeed, he dropped his fee to less than $2 million for Warner Bros.' summer 2013 release The Great Gatsby.
All of these actors are trying to navigate an environment that has become increasingly challenging, with studios and directors in such ascendancy that stars often seem like an afterthought.
Michael Fassbender, who seemed to be at the top of the new A-list in the wake of Shame and X-Men: First Class, has become less of a sure thing since Prometheus, but he remains one of the few names that foreign financiers get excited about -- and they're willing to sink $15 million-plus into a project with his attachment. "International sales are hugely driven by the star power in a movie," says Mark Gill, president of Millennium Films. "If you don't have $100 million worth of special effects, you've got to have some reason for people to go -- and that's the stars." (Others on that internationally viable shortlist include James McAvoy, Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe, Carey Mulligan, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis.)
Hardy, who's definitely on the hot list, scored big with The Dark Knight Rises and Inception but has yet to deliver a blockbuster on his name alone. And Chris Pine, who soared with 2009's Star Trek, disappointed with This Means War and crashed with People Like Us, making insiders unsure of his cachet. (The success of 2010's Unstoppable is attributed to Denzel Washington.) Franchises seem to be his sweet spot: He's assuming the Jack Ryan mantle in Paramount's reboot of the Tom Clancy hero.
With few of these actors able to open movies, they've stopped being the biggest, most crucial cog in the machine. Marvel has only underlined that. Insiders gripe that not only does Marvel pay its stars low- to mid-six figures for their debut films (with the exception of Robert Downey Jr., who delivered before Marvel Studios became a mega-brand), it also signs them to multipicture pacts that require playing their character across a host of titles. Hence Hemsworth is committed to two Thor sequels, an Avengers follow-up and at least one other Marvel venture before he is free. Of course, he will renegotiate his contract along the way, but Marvel likely will never pay him, or Captain America's Chris Evans, the kind of money Tatum and Lawrence are getting.
And even if he gets that elsewhere, he's now in a business where you're only as good as your last film, as Taylor Kitsch learned the hard way when Disney's John Carter and Universal's Battleship -- each of which cost about $250 million -- flopped back-to-back.
Perhaps the very idea of being a star has become outmoded, at least as it once was conceived -- a mysterious creature who lived in a realm apart from the rest of us who would appear once every year or two, then vanish. Social media and tabloid ubiquity have helped to bring these stars down to earth -- with such megawatt veterans as Will Smith and Washington among the rare exceptions.
As Tory Metzger, who was one of Cruise's agents for 16 years at CAA, puts it, "Being bigger than life was extremely important in the past, but I'm not sure that's so important anymore."