Hollywood signals death of the star system

Falling revenues mean studios are cutting back on high-earning actors, says Christopher Goodwin

BY Christopher Goodwin LAST UPDATED AT 01:00 ON Tue 13 May 2008

When 84 year-old Sumner Redstone 'fired' Tom Cruise 18 months ago, ending his lucrative 14-year relationship with Paramount Pictures, some saw it as the petulant outburst of a grumpy old man who didn't understand how the Hollywood star system worked.

But now Redstone's abrupt dismissal of Hollywood's biggest star of the last 20 years looks eerily prescient. Number crunchers at the Hollywood studios have reached a startling conclusion: the highest earning stars are simply not worth the enormous sums of money they are paid, and the studios are determined to cut them down to size.

In the last decade it became common for top stars like Cruise, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks to be paid an upfront fee of $25m per picture plus enormous profit participation deals. Mission: Impossible III, for example, made around $400m at the global box office. Cruise took home about $95m while Paramount, which had taken the risk of putting up the $150m budget, ended up with a profit of just $10m.

Since then, a slew of movies starring some of Hollywood’s biggest and highest-paid stars have failed miserably. The Good German, starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, took just $1.3m at the US box office. Leatherheads, the most recent film to star Clooney, whom Time magazine recently hailed on its cover as 'The Last Movie Star', looks very unlikely to make back its $58m budget. The Invasion, starring A-listers Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, made just $15m, having cost $85m to produce. Even such comedy stars as Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell have had serious misfires in the last year.

"Here's the new benchmark for predicting box-office performance: if a movie-star heads the cast, downgrade the forecasts," says Peter Bart, editor of the Hollywood trade paper Variety. "Some distributors inevitably ask: Has the basic concept of a movie star become something of an anachronism?"

The studios certainly think so. They are increasingly relying on high-concept 'franchise' films that don't depend on big stars. These include enormous hits like Iron Man, which has just taken $200m worldwide in its first weekend, Spider-man, Harry Potter, Batman and the upcoming 2008 releases Wanted, Wolf Man and Death Race. The other big money-spinners these days are cheap comedies like Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall from producer-director Judd Apatow, which don't need big stars.

"What more and more studios are saying is, 'Let's find a concept we can market and once we have that, then we'll get the best actor who can fit that'," says one agent. Of course some of these franchise pictures, like Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp and now Iron Man with Robert Downey Jnr, are boosted by their star actors. But the new Hollywood rule is that outside these franchises even such huge stars as Depp have little drawing power any more.

"The average number of top grossing films over the last few years that are driven by stars has fallen by 200-300 per cent," says Steve Zeitchik of the Hollywood Reporter.

The result is that Harrison Ford has been forced to accept a radical financial arrangement for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, which will be premiered at the Cannes film festival. Paramount Pictures has insisted that the film must take more than $400m at the box office, covering its production and marketing costs and some distribution fees, before Ford, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas, none of whom is receiving an upfront fee, see a cent.

The upside for the three men is that if the film does recoup the $400m, between them they'll get 87.5 cents of every dollar thereafter. "It's good for both parties," says media analyst Harold Vogel. "If the talent has a true belief in the movie, they are taking a little more risk in exchange for a much larger share of the profits." · 

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