ShoWest talent spotlight

A-list actors who stick to their 'brands' can still fill theaters

Stars don't matter anymore, right?

Around Hollywood, presold franchises have replaced A-list vehicles as the drivers of studio balance sheets.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes. Pundits never miss an opportunity to cite the disappointing boxoffice performance of a high-profile star movie. In the past year, Julia Roberts' much-touted comeback in "Duplicity" fizzled out at $40 million domestic; Adam Sandler's "Funny People" amassed a less-than-amusing $51 million; and Johnny Depp's pirate-free summer outing "Public Enemies" stole only $97 million.

But what if the sky isn't falling for star-driven pictures?

A close look at recent boxoffice trends reveals that when an A-lister sticks to his or her proven brand, a movie doesn't need to be a presold entity to be a hit.

Consider Sandra Bullock's 2009 double-shot of "The Proposal" ($164 million domestic) and "The Blind Side" ($253 million), films that played to her comic timing and vulnerability -- the two traits that made her a star in the first place. Vince Vaughn's "Couples Retreat," which showcased the actor's popular wise-ass persona, was panned by critics but opened with $34 million en route to nearly $110 million. More recently, Denzel Washington powered "The Book of Eli" to a $32 million opening weekend in January, and last month Leonardo DiCaprio's psychological thriller "Shutter Island" opened to a surprising $41 million. Both movies featured the actors in classic movie-star roles.

" 'Eli' without Denzel is a tough sell," notes Apparition topper Bob Berney, who hopes to tap the star power of Kristen Stewart for this week's "The Runaways." "But you had to see him in that role. Same with 'Shutter Island.' Leo and Marty (Scorsese) go way back and people are expecting something. In those instances, the star really matters."

What matters most is matching the star to the material that audiences want to see.

Case in point: Meryl Streep has long been revered for her talent, but only in the past few years has she found her boxoffice groove. That coincided with Streep's willingness to take on showy, crowd-pleasing roles in such entertainment as "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mamma Mia!" She perfected the formula in 2009 with "Julie & Julia" and "It's Complicated," both of which were broad commercial plays -- and big hits. Bullock, despite her 2009 success, missed completely with "All About Steve," which grossed less than $34 million. There she played an unhinged stalker, an off-kilter role that doesn't fit the Bullock brand.

"When someone gives you a good feeling in a role, you want to see only variations on that moving forward," says Mike Vollman, head of marketing for MGM/UA. "That's what 'The Proposal' and 'The Blind Side' were for Sandra Bullock."

"Proposal" even allowed Bullock to stretch her brand a bit with "Blind Side," growing as an actress while still delivering a screen persona that felt familiar to her fans.

The same could be said for George Clooney, a big star with a spotty boxoffice track record. In his successful films he typically plays assured, classic leading men with a hint of a vulnerability, as in the "Ocean's" movies.

In his most recent film, "Up in the Air," Clooney riffed on that persona to critical and modest commercial success ($80 million domestic). But in another 2009 release, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," Clooney veered into the eccentric territory of "Leatherheads" and "Welcome to Collinwood," neither of which filled seats.

"The question isn't whether stars matter," says Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of Screen Engine, a movie research firm, "but whether stars matter in the right roles. 'Up in the Air' had the pedigree of the director of 'Juno,' extremely relevant subject matter and Clooney in one of the best roles of his career."

The A-list star who seems most immune to the vagaries of the boxoffice is Will Smith. And there's a reason.

"He knows his brand, he sticks with his brand," one studio exec says. "And if you stick with your brand enough, people will be willing to go on a journey with you, like 'The Pursuit of Happyness.' But if you push it too far, like in 'Seven Pounds,' they won't."

Roberts, for example, pushed her brand beyond what audiences wanted in "Duplicity." But if her mega-watt smile and winning charm are on full display in the summer in "Eat, Pray, Love," she could score big, albeit with an older audience than she once commanded.

Similarly, Depp rebounded from "Enemies" with "Alice in Wonderland," which opened to $116 million. The "Alice" franchise and its post-"Avatar" 3D appeal helped boost those numbers, of course. A bigger test for Depp's star power will be this year's drama "The Rum Diary," an adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson book.

Likewise, Sandler is poised to get back on track with the June comedy "Grown Ups," which is more in step with his brand than "Funny People" or "Spanglish," another boxoffice misfire.

To be sure, stardom isn't what it used to be. Like the U.S. housing market, the market for talent became overvalued and has corrected. Paramount, for instance, recently signed Tom Cruise for a fourth "Mission: Impossible" film at a significantly reduced fee. The first-dollar gross deals that were once common have virtually disappeared.

Lately, studios are banking on the stars of "Twilight" -- Taylor Lautner as "Stretch Armstrong," Robert Pattinson in "Water for Elephants" -- but the success of the vampire franchise is due in large part to the popularity of the books. For the actors to create their own brands will require shrewd choices during the next few years.

"DiCaprio is someone who successfully changed his brand," Vollman says. "He was Robert Pattinson during 'Titanic' -- he was that guy that every girl pinned her hopes and dreams on. Now he's a man with a presence onscreen that you can't take your eyes off. He's successfully gone from one brand to another."

Plenty of actors have broadened their fan base. Robert Downey Jr., for instance, went from prestige character actor to the star of blockbusters like "Iron Man" and "Sherlock Holmes."

Vollman predicts the same could be true for Channing Tatum after "Dear John." "He burned himself into the consciousness of these young women in a way that they are always going to subconsciously be looking for those characteristics when they see him," Vollman says.

Insiders agree that actors will always be potent force in Hollywood. But the future of big-budget movies will likely rest in a combination of stars and story.

"People glom on to stars like the holy grail," says Peter Guber of Mandalay Entertainment. "But it's just part of the equation."
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