The superstars: As needy as they are greedy

TOM CRUISE IS still looking for his next picture. Harrison Ford just dropped out of his. Leonardo DiCaprio’s next project is still coming together. Jack Nicholson hasn’t worked in three years, and Warren Beatty still seems to be doing reshoots of last year’s movie.

No one’s taking up a collection for unemployed superstars, but their absence reminds us of a phenomenon that has agents and studio executives worried. At a time when Hollywood more than ever depends on star-driven vehicles, it’s getting harder to put the stars together with the vehicles.

“I cannot remember a time when so many of our top clients were not working,” says one agent.

While studio executives find all this supremely frustrating, they don’t like to talk about it for the record. Nonetheless, more and more pricey projects are sitting on the runway, awaiting the blessing of a superstar.

PREDICTABLY, THEORIES abound about the cause of this dilemma, and they are wildly contradictory.

Theory one: There are startlingly few good parts around. Some agents claim that the studios are so intent on developing “safe” commercial projects that actors are turned off by them. And the industrywide cutback in development has sharply exacerbated this problem; the few projects emerging from development hell are kids pictures, not star pictures.

Theory two: Superstars have gotten greedy. Talk to studio executives, and they’ll tell you the problem stems from deals, not scripts.

“We have unconventional scripts with edgy parts, but people have to be willing to share the risk with us,” says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of Worldwide Production for Warner Bros.

Theory three: Superstars are lazy. There have been too many stratospheric paydays totaling between $ 50 million and $ 70 million so that stars and their advisers are thinking more like multinational corporations than actors. “The incentive to work starts to fade in that lofty income bracket,” acknowledges the agent for one major star.

Theory four: The failure of several recent superstar vehicles has everyone scared. Almost every top star has had a casualty lately — Harrison Ford in “Random Hearts,” Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Jim Carrey in “Man on the Moon, ” Bruce Willis in “The Story of Us.” The result is that some stars and their advisers have become a little shell-shocked — in other words, they’re as risk averse as the studios they criticize.

WHICH THEORY IS correct? Probably all of the above. When a studio sets out to orchestrate the ultimate risk-averse movie — one that will attract financial partners, overseas partners, fast food partners and merchandising partners — chances are the central role may not turn out to be exactly Oscar material.

And there sits a superstar, habitually talking about those “edgy” parts, yet also wary about blowing his franchise. Most big stars on some level realize that their earning power derives not so much from talent as from the power of their “brand name.” Tom Cruise is almost as formidable a brand as, say, Budweiser. Both were built through the power of marketing. It’s fun for him to take a bit part in “Magnolia” provided he doesn’t damage the brand. A down-the-middle sequel like “Mission: Impossible II” runs no such danger.

HENCE, AGENTS AND STUDIOS alike have become accustomed to protracted, double-edged dialogues with actors. On the one hand, both sides have a lot to protect. On the other, the very rich can also become very bored.

Everyone wants to lure superstars back to the soundstages. The agents need the commissions. The studios need the product.

And the stars? After all the posturing, the backing and filling, and the speeches about artistic growth, even a movie star has to wake up and say, “Wait a minute, this is what I do for a living.”

At that point, a lot of people breathe easier.

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