Hollywood's New Math: Who Needs Stars?

It was one of those films that my wife and I decided was a "must-see." Big stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta playing off one another in a tense, action-filled drama, the remake of the 1974 subway hijacking flick The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Apparently, the movie (which, by the way, was pretty darn good) didn't make a lot of other must-see lists. Even with its star power and a hefty advertising budget, it finished its opening weekend third, well behind a couple of leftover movies from prior weeks: the gross-out comedy The Hangover and Walt Disney's (DIS) animated film Up, whose tickets for the kiddie crowd—most of its audience—were half-price. At least Washington and Travolta fared better than Eddie Murphy: His lame comedy Imagine That opened to a measly $5 million.

Big stars just don't seem to be what they used to be. There was a time when a star would open a film with mega-numbers simply by putting his or her name on the marquee and showing his or her face in the trailers. Only two years back, Murphy's comedy Norbit opened to a stellar $34.2 million first weekend, according to the Web site Box Office Mojo. And Murphy isn't the only star whose offering this summer has bombed: Will Ferrell's big-budget Land of the Lost opened to lots of empty seats.

While most star vehicles have been withering at your local cineplex, the hot movies so far this year —Star Trek, Fast and Furious, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Hangover—feature things that blow up, comic book heroes, or actors who either belch or show lots of skin (or both).

The fact is, it seems you no longer need a big-name actor to open a movie. What happened? Chalk it up to the rise of tabloids, the paparazzi, online media, and reality TV. Today, stars are made almost hourly, whether it's Jon and Kate filing for divorce in front of a reality TV audience or Susan Boyle capturing worldwide attention after her singing captivated a British TV audience and made the rounds on YouTube. And once you're a star, your every move is followed by US Weekly, TMZ, or one of the other eyes-everywhere outlets. Maybe Julia Roberts was destined to flop in her role as a seductress in the wobbly heist flick Duplicity after shots of a matronly Roberts with her kids showed up in fan magazines months before the film opened. And ask Tom Cruise what happened to his star quality, thanks to Oprah and Matt Lauer.

It wasn't that long ago that a studio felt comfortable paying Julia $20 million—that's what she got for Erin Brockovich in 2000—because the star was the movie. Her every gesture and voice intonation was crucial. More important, folks would flock to hear her on the promotional circuit. Jay or David would lap her up on late night, with Matt and Meredith featuring her in the morning. If you were a studio executive, it was pretty much money in the bank that Julia, Tom, or Will Smith would open a movie for you.

Star Trek's star: J.J. Abrams

Don't get me wrong. Big-name actors can still open a movie. But they're no longer crucial. In bygone years, says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com, studios would have scrambled to find a big-name star to play Captain James T. Kirk and other crew members for this summer's Star Trek. Instead, Paramount (VIA) selected a cast of relative nobodies, amped up the special effects, and "made it all about J.J. Abrams," milking his following from his work co-creating the ABC TV show Lost. Moviegoers, say Dergarabedian, take their cues not from the stars but from the trailers they see on cable TV, the Internet, even their cell phones. "Today it's the concept of the movie that motivates folks to go the movie theater, not the star who's in it," he says.

That may be one reason why studios are finally starting to realize that they don't need to pay stars $20 million a film or give them a big chunk of the revenues, as they had reflexively done for years. Julia Roberts now gets closer to $12 million. Travolta, who got $20 million for the fire disaster movie Ladder 49 in 2004, is said to have received half that for his role in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Still, that's more than the entire cast of Universal's (GE) Fast and Furious took home for their flick, which grossed more than $155 million—or about $100 million more than Pelham, which cost $100 million to make, in part because of the hefty salaries of Washington and Travolta.

The argument has always been that a big-name star was needed to help sell to foreign audiences, which can account for as much as 40% of a big film's eventual revenues. And maybe they do. But with foreign and DVD sales starting to suffer, studios have put the screws to their big-name talent in other ways. Harrison Ford, who traditionally gets a healthy piece of overall revenues for any film in which he stars, was forced (along with director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas) to collect his piece of the action from the latest Indiana Jones flick only after the studio started to show profits.

The heavy reliance on no-name, special effects-driven movies might simply be a summer phenomenon, of course. And there have been some notable films with big stars that have opened this summer. Tom Hanks did help open the religious thriller Angels and Demons, the year's ninth-best-opening film. Then again, the most eagerly awaited offering of the coming Christmas box office bonanza is Jim Cameron's sci-fi film Avatar, which stars no-name actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. It does, however, have some great special effects.

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