Hollywood's top stars face devaluing of A-list currency
EmptyAnyone glancing at 2007 boxoffice numbers might have noticed a striking absence of star power. Only four of the top 25 domestic grossers were driven primarily by movie stars -- the lowest number in history.
The data captures what is becoming a seismic and industry-reshaping phenomenon: A-list talent is having trouble packing multiplexes based on star wattage alone.
With the exception of Will Smith -- sixth on the 2007 list with "I Am Legend" -- it's increasingly clear that other elements, from established franchises to marketable concepts to such brand-name creators as Tyler Perry and Judd Apatow, either give actors a necessary boost or entirely replace them as the draw for moviegoers.
"There are not a lot of movie stars right now," says Avi Lerner, who has produced movies with Bruce Willis and Robert De Niro. "The market has become more selective."
The decline of star power comes as consumers are viewing film actors differently. Such voyeuristic media outlets as "Access Hollywood" and TMZ.com have demystified celebrities even as they feed unprecedented interest. Why turn out for a favorite star's movie if you can watch him walk his dog on TV and the Internet?
"Mystique is what draws people to the movies," PMK publicist Catherine Olim says. "People want to go to the movies to get lost in a performance. And it's hard to do that with so much interference."
For the most part, stars and their reps have warded off financial adjustments that should follow from these boxoffice shifts. But there's growing sentiment -- familiar to producers but increasingly common, if largely unspoken, among agents -- that star salaries are out of proportion with star influence. Rollbacks, or at least a rethink, could be coming, a trend already manifest in some new deals and even in the recent wave of agency defections.
The modern notion of star power -- the idea, which took hold about 30 years ago, that stars matter above all else to a movie's success -- placed tremendous power in the hands of talent and their agencies, which caused salaries to go up, which in turn increased actors' leverage even further.
But there's a sense now -- evident in multiple boxoffice metrics and comments uttered privately by the dozens of agents, managers and producers interviewed for this report -- that the interplay among consumers, celebrities and entertainment dollars is changing. The new dynamics are a challenge the next generation of up-and-comers -- Shia LaBeouf, Seth Rogen, Emile Hirsch and Katherine Heigl often are cited -- could face.
"As audiences get younger, they don't care about movie stars in the same way," Sony Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper says. "The idea of seeing a beautiful movie star on the big screen just isn't the same to them."
On the surface, movie stars are bigger than ever. They're ubiquitous on magazine covers and late-night TV. Their every move is dissected on blogs and fan sites.
But the boxoffice reports tell a different story.
Such comedic actors as Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell have in the past year or so hit longtime or even career lows. Brad Pitt has slid from a career high of $185 million for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" to a paltry $4 million for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," low even by specialty standards. Leonardo DiCaprio's stock showed signs of waning with 2006's "Blood Diamond" ($57 million), a fact that might have partly prompted the major studios to pass on his buzz project "Low Dweller" several months ago.
And it's not just leading men. Julia Roberts had three $125 million movies from 1997-2001; she hasn't broken $70 million since.
When star power does still exist, it seems to be narrowing. At the height of stars' drawing potential in the 1990s, you could drop such then-A-listers as Kevin Costner or Arnold Schwarzenegger into pretty much any movie and expect to gross $100 million stateside. (How else to explain "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" or "Kindergarten Cop"?)
Today's top-paid stars, on the other hand, need to be paired much more carefully with material to score a runaway hit.
Johnny Depp might largely be responsible for the $300 million-$400 million domestic grosses of his "Pirates" movies, but put him in "Sweeney Todd" or "From Hell" and those films struggle to reach $50 million.
Matt Damon has been a key part of two of the most lucrative contemporary franchises ("Ocean's" and "Bourne"), but his boxoffice mojo has stalled in other turns ("The Good Shepherd": $51 million domestic). Adam Sandler fails to open any movie that isn't one of his trademark comedies.
And George Clooney might be capable of helping drive ensemble franchises like "Ocean's," but put him in a period screwball sports comedy and you have the dud that is "Leatherheads."
Perhaps the star who best epitomizes the new era is that ultimate A-lister, Tom Hanks. From 1998-2002, Hanks had a whopping six movies, from war pictures to romantic comedies, that earned between $115 million and $215 million domestically. Outside of a built-in brand like "The Da Vinci Code," he hasn't had a movie in that range since.
Many of these shifts stem from the way most studio movies are now made.
While a number of studios -- Warner Bros., and to some extent, Paramount -- still seek to build projects around stars, others, such as Fox and Disney, are relying much more on concepts. When newly minted MGM executive Mary Parent addressed a group of agents recently, she said the studio was looking for title-driven projects, not star-driven ones.
"What more and more studios are saying is, 'Let's find a concept we can market to all four quadrants, and once we have that, then we'll get the best person who can fit that concept,' " one agent says.
Meanwhile, stars are seeing their stock devalued by the rise of Wall Street slate financing because source material often is regarded as a more reliable predictor of boxoffice than a star, which explains the glut of money now spent on everything from "He-Man" to "American Girl."
And even as international boxoffice becomes more crucial, it's having a peculiar effect on star power because it's becoming harder to argue that a particular A-lister will appeal so broadly. Why spend so much on talent when it's possible that Poland or Korea audiences won't know the difference anyway?
Despite these factors, a central paradox remains: the payday. Such stars as Sandler and Stiller still regularly land $20 million fees with significant backend points -- full freight, in industry parlance.
But there are signs that loads are lightening. For stars in less-proven films than, say, "Bourne" (for which Damon earns $20 million-$25 million plus backend), the good times might be slowing down, especially as rising marketing and production costs continue to eat up budgets. "The $20 million against $20 million deal is basically dead," one agent says.
There's always a new star nabbing an eye-popping amount, like what insiders say is Jason Statham's $5 million for "Crank 2" or an established star like Meryl Streep pulling in $1 million for a week's work on "Rendition." But new ways of calculating paydays by tying them to boxoffice essentially would amount to a rollback.
The model of the future could be Carrey's deal for "Yes Man," in which he accepted no upfront money and will earn a higher percentage of the film's revenue. In the future, stars might not be paid simply for being stars; they'll be paid for delivering results.
Then again, the stars themselves are a big reason for these changes. In the past, A-listers, by design or by circumstance, hewed closely to the commercial fare that made them famous, but today's stars are more adventurous.
The growing prominence of awards season combined with the increased specialization of Oscar films has led many stars -- Clooney, Pitt and Angelina Jolie are just a few -- to take on more challenging and esoteric roles. That might be great for their art, but commercially, the effects are more complicated.
"Consumers are savvy, and whenever a trailer comes out with a Clooney or Pitt movie, they're very wary, scrutinizing it for whether it's the George and Brad they love or something else entirely," one agent says.
With another summer of concept-driven movies looming, the proportion of top boxoffice grossers driven by nonstar factors could increase.
Smith again could prove his drawing power when the superhero drama "Hancock" opens in July. But most of the other top earners in 2008 will come from other quarters, as winter winners like "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" likely will be joined by such nonstar-driven hopefuls as "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," "Speed Racer" and "The Dark Knight."
And consider the star vehicle "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which is partly driven by the presence of Harrison Ford. That it continues a story line hatched almost 30 years ago and features a star born twice as far back tells you all you need to know about the modern relevance of star power.
The state of star power is also evident on the Web. The data in the charts below was compiled by Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which tracks the amount of buzz in the blogosphere. Nielsen is the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.
The Judd Apatow film "Knocked Up," released June 2007, was more buzzed about on blogs than A-list stars like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and even the movie's star, Katherine Heigl.
Will Smith was more buzzed about than his own blockbuster film "I Am Legend" when it was released in December 2007.
Note: The large spike in February 2007 can likely be attributed to his Oscar nomination for his role in "Pursuit of Happyness."
$1.8 billion total
Star-driven (44%): "Three Men and a Baby" ($168 mil); "Fatal Attraction" ($157 mil); "Good Morning, Vietnam" ($124 mil); "Lethal Weapon" ($65 mil); "Witches of Eastwick" ($64 mil); "Predator" ($60 mil); "Throw Momma from the Train" ($58 mil); "Eddie Murphy Raw" ($51 mil); "Plains, Trains and Automobiles" ($50 mil)
Franchise-driven (23%): "Beverly Hills Cop II" ($154 mil); "Dragnet," ($57 mil); "Robocop" ($53 mil); "The Living Daylights" ($51 mil); "Snow White and Seven Dwarfs" reissue ($47 mil); "Nightmare on Elm Street 3" ($45 mil)
Awards-driven (13%): "Moonstruck" ($81 mil); "Broadcast News" ($51 mil); "Full Metal Jacket" ($46 mil); "Last Emperor" ($44 mil)
Buzz comedies (10%): "Secret of My Success" ($67 mil); "Stakeout" ($66 mil); "Outrageous Fortune" ($53 mil)
Media/grassroots sensations (10%): "La Bamba" ($54 mil); "Untouchables" ($76 mil); "Dirty Dancing" ($63 mil)
$3.4 billion total
Star-driven (60%): "Titanic" ($601 mil); "Men in Black" ($251 mil); "Liar Liar" ($181 mil); "Air Force One ($173 mil); "As Good As It Gets ($148 mil); "My Best Friend's Wedding" ($127 mi); "Face/Off ($112 mil); "Con Air" ($101 mil); "Contact" ($101 mil); "Flubber" ($93 mil); "Conspiracy Theory" ($76 mil); "In & Out" ($64 mil)
Franchise-driven (28%): "The Lost World: Jurrassic Park" ($230 mil); "Star Wars" reissue ($138 mil); "Tomorrow Never Dies" ($125 mil); "Batman & Robin" ($107 mil); "George of the Jungle" ($105 mil); "Scream 2" (101 mil); "Hercules" ($99 mil); "Empire Strikes Back" reissue ($68 mil)
Awards-driven (6%): "Good Will Hunting" ($138 mil); "L.A. Confidential" ($65 mil)
Effects-driven (4%): "Dante's Peak" ($67 mil); "Anaconda" ($66 mil)
Media/grassroots sensation (2%): "I Know What You Did Last Summer" ($73 mil)
$4.8 billion total
Star-driven (13%): "I Am Legend" ($256 mil); "American Gangster" ($130 mil); "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" ($120 mil); "Blades of Glory" ($119 mil)
Creator-driven (12%): "Knocked Up" ($149 mil); "Superbad" ($121 mil); "Ratatouille" ($206 mil); "Bee Movie" ($127 mil)
Franchise-driven (52%): "Spider-Man 3" ($337 mil); "Shrek the Third" ($323 mil); "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" ($309 mil); "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ($292 mil); "The Bourne Ultimatum" ($227 mil); "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," ($219 mil); "Alvin and the Chipmunks," ($217 mil); "The Simpsons Movie," ($183 mil); "Rush Hour 3," ($140 mil); "Live Free or Die Hard," ($135 mil); "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" ($132 mil)
Effects-driven (11%): "Transformers" ($319 mil); "300" ($211 mil)
Buzz comedies/musicals (9%): "Wild Hogs" ($168 mil); "Enchanted" ($127 mil); "Hairspray" ($119 mil)
Media/grassroots sensations (3%): "Juno" ($143 mil)