So Much for Star Power

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All right, Tom Cruise won. His "Mission: Impossible II" coasted to an easy victory in the summer box-office race, with $213 million in domestic grosses. Cruise did what movie stars are supposed to do: climb a rockface, save the girl and the world and, in the process, make a bundle for himself and his backers. But take a look at the runners-up, and you will find a few surprises—unpleasant ones, for an industry that pays dearly for celebrity wattage to attract customers. The return on star investment is falling like a dotcom stock. Hollywood bosses have to wonder: Have we entered the poststar era?

Consider that the top-billed players of the five films after "M:I2" were, in descending order of earnings and ascending levels of incredulity, Russell Crowe ("Gladiator," $182 million), George Clooney ("The Perfect Storm," $174 million), Hugh Jackman ("X-Men," $149 million), Shannon Elizabeth ("Scary Movie," $147 million) and D.B. Sweeney (the voice of the iguanodon in "Dinosaur," $134 million). Except for an uneasy turn as the caped japester in 1997’s "Batman and Robin," Clooney hadn't got closer to a $100 million movie than the fifth row of the Beverly Center 13. Crowe and Jackman, those Australian-bred hunks of smoldering beefcake, may be headliners in the making, but they're not made yet. As for the other two—well, their parents must be very proud.

The golden rules of summer blockbusting are to have an old-fashioned star or to make a sequel to a popular movie. Five of this season's six top-grossing films broke the rules. In summer 2000, the genre was the star: toga epic, Twister at sea, comic-book heroism, a Scream ream and a cutesy Jurassic Park. Moviegoers were in the mood for unofficial remakes—familiar formulas with less famous faces. As CBS's Survivor took 16 nobodies and turned them into summer celebrities, Hollywood made big bucks with the B Team.

A glance at the 18 films of the past 12 months earning more than $100 million reinforces the who's-in-it? who-cares? trend. Only six, besides "M:I2," had front-line performers: Tom Hanks in "The Green Mile" and (we're being generous) "Toy Story 2," Harrison Ford in "What Lies Beneath," Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," Mel Gibson in "The Patriot" and Eddie Murphy in "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." The other winners connected with audiences' fondness for old franchises (the James Bond "The World Is Not Enough"), twisted family dramas ("American Beauty," "Double Jeopardy"), barnyard critters ("Stuart Little," "Chicken Run") and black comics dolled up as fat women ("Big Momma’s House"). Moreover, the films without top names usually cost a lot less to make, so the back end was bigger—and not just Big Momma’s.

The trend has been building for a few years, since "Scream" (1996) indicated that cheesy teenpix could cross the $100 million hurdle. Last summer's "American Pie" and "The Blair Witch Project" accelerated the no-star momentum. The town's easiest profits come from cheap movies with low aspirations and performers who look as if they’d just been kidnapped from the junior prom. Meanwhile, a platinum-card holder like Jim Carrey stumbles slightly with "Me, Myself & Irene" ($89 million) and pratfalls with "Man on the Moon" ($35 million). Last August, Bruce Willis rode a big winner in "The Sixth Sense" (nearly $300 million); in September he couldn’t attract flies with Breakfast of Champions (less than $200,000!). Yet the studio bosses still hand out huge paydays to guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is the film equivalent of the aging athlete making more money in the twilight of an honorable career than in his glory years. A megastar costs so much that producers can't afford to hire other pricey actors to join him. A star vehicle used to hold a host of major talent. Now the driver is also the only notable passenger.

So why keep giving stars annuities? Because they are brand commodities who bring one more element—and, in the right mix, the crucial one—to the marketing of an expensive product. Because studio heads are nervous folks who want the insurance and reassurance of a known name. And, not least, because the old guys know how to play the star game. They agree to keep appearing in movies that are recognizably big and bulky, with the special effects, the cartoon emotions, the apocalyptic ante all announcing that these movies have size.

But the younger actors—you just can’t trust these kids. You can't get a Ben Affleck, a Matt Damon, to sign up for a franchise series that will make them world famous and beyond rich. They'd rather play evil angels in Kevin Smith's shaggy "Dogma" than be a Tom Clancy spy stud. Only Nicolas Cage seems willing to shoulder the burden of action star. And the women are worse! Cameron Diaz won't let herself be crowned as the next romantic-comedy heroine. For every Charlie’s Angels, she has to make three weird indie films. There are plenty of potential stars—the Gwyneths and Winonas and the rest of that sorority, blessed with intelligence and a glow that comes off the screen like musk — but they seem averse to stardom, not avid for it.

That is a good thing. Good for them, being actors in edgy little films rather than action figures in dumb big ones. And good for Hollywood, because their reduced visibility will make them less likely to demand a fortune when they decide to make a "real" movie. Besides, there will always be some youngish actors who take stardom seriously. Hell, Tom Cruise is only 38.