Pegging future stars is often a leap of faith

Hits and Misses

In the hyphenated world of Hollywood, the annual ShoWest gathering fits right in: part trade show, part schmooze fest, part old-school red-carpet gala. The four-day Vegas confab of exhibs and distribs with its smattering of celebrities and studio brass is to the conference business what Europuddings are to co-production deals.

Nowhere is that more evident than tonight’s annual closing banquet, where the famous and not-so-famous rub elbows, chow down on the best damn convention food Sin City can cook up and, natch, hand out some awards.

“It’s the culmination of what the week at ShoWest is all about,” says Mitch Neuhauser, ShoWest co-managing director. “We want to get exhibitors excited about upcoming product so they can send the word out through their companies and begin to create awareness in their respective markets of what the studios have on tap.”

Among the many award categories tonight (see related sidebars) are the perennial favorites of just about everybody: male star of tomorrow and female star of tomorrow. This year’s recipients are, respectively, Ryan Gosling and Jennifer Garner.

In its own way, naming a star of tomorrow requires a certain amount of chutzpah. As with a political analyst calling a presidential race six months before Election Day, one can end up with a certain amount of egg on one’s face.

Yes, Kim Basinger and Jeff Goldblum were good calls in 1983, ditto Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in 1990, and Matt Damon and Minnie Driver in 1998 (though they’d publicly split up by award night and had to be ushered in, er, separately).

But hold the phone — Howie Long in 1997? Robin Givens in 1991 (with co-honoree Richard Grieco)? And, no disrespect, but did Morgan Fairchild really look like she was headed for the same stratosphere occupied by Streep, Streisand and Field in 1981?

“Most of the choices are driven by what’s happening at the time,” says a distrib exec at a major studio, “often with an eye to the immediate future.”

For his part, Long was being touted as a new action star after his perf in John Woo’s 1996 actioner “Broken Arrow.” Givens’ featured perf in Bill Duke’s “A Rage in Harlem” was generally well received.

To be fair, since the Sunshine Group took over the show four years ago, the choices have been solid and sensible — Heath Ledger and Shannon Elizabeth in 2001, Naomi Watts and Josh Hartnett in 2002, and Alison Lohman as femme star at last year’s event. Only LL Cool J, last year’s star of tomorrow, seemed a bit of a stretch: The rapper, who first gained attention in “The Hard Way” (1991), shows no signs of being any hotter tomorrow than he was yesterday.

So how do they pick ‘em? And why do actors show up to accept an award that means no bump for their salaries (such as an Oscar nom or win can bring) or much of a lift to their street cred?

“Young actors are much more savvy than they were a generation ago when it comes to marketing,” says Susan Patricola, a longtime personal publicist who counts Ledger and Hartnett as her clients. “They understand that exhibitors are a significant part of the process of helping a film succeed or fail.”

Besides, the whole thing is just a short trip from Los Angeles. With a studio jet at one’s disposal, one can have lunch at the Grill in Beverly Hills, fly off to Vegas, pick up an award, get back on the plane and be reading a book fireside in Malibu by 11 p.m.

A couple of years ago, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise did their version of that when Cruise presented his friend with a lifetime achievement award. “They showed up 20 minutes before and left right after the presentation,” says a publicist who attended the show.

Nonetheless, few stars are no-shows, and when present they are gracious in the extreme. “I was really honored that they would consider my work substantial,” Cameron Diaz said in 1996, when she really was an unknown quantity (1994’s “The Mask” was her biggest accomplishment to date). “I had no idea anybody had seen what I was doing.”

Hedging bets

There are, of course, a few great exceptions to the rule. In the annals of the less-gracious (and perhaps, brutally honest) Louise Fletcher, accepting Jack Nicholson’s 1984 ShoWest kudo for his perf in “Terms of Endearment,” said, “Jack wanted to be here so much, he went to Berlin. I’m sure Jack will appreciate this award very much — as soon as his secretary tells him about it.”

The selection process for star of tomorrow, as with all ShoWest kudos, is an informal system of studio lobbying, anticipated news hooks and some good old-fashioned arm-twisting. Garner and Gosling already are stars, as were most of the recent honorees.

Garner and her sexy TV series “Alias” (which she’s inked with through the 2007-08 season), her action role in the Ben Affleck vehicle “Daredevil” and her demonstrable acting chops makes her a no-brainer for the A-list for some time to come.

Gosling, with his much-praised turns in “The Believer” (2001) and “Murder by Numbers” (2002), is similarly firmly established in the casting minds of Hollywood’s cognoscenti.

“I tend to err on the side of cynicism when it comes to these sorts of things,” says top publicist Bumble Ward. “It’s all about promotion.”

So it’s no coincidence that the people that get picked usually have some big product in the pipeline. Gosling’s upcoming “The Notebook,” directed by Nick Cassavetes, is screening at the confab. “The United States of Leland” (which co-stars Kevin Spacey and is from his TriggerStreet Prods.) is set for release April 2.

For her part, Garner’s “13 Going on 30″ opens April 23, while “Elektra” and “Happy Endings” are either shooting or in the pipeline.

But, says Neuhauser, “The selection process is neither arbitrary nor single-handed. It’s done in concert with the industry. The ultimate goal is to select individuals who best represent what the award is about.”

HITS
KIM BASINGER
[Honoree 1983]
Then: Touted as the latest Bond girl in “Never Say Never Again.”
Now: The Oscar-winning actress (“L.A. Confidential”) has three films in the can, including “Door in the Floor” opposite Jeff Bridges.

JOHNNY DEPP
[Honoree 1990]
Then: Starred as a serious cut-up in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands.”
Now: The Oscar-nominated “Pirates of the Caribbean” star is Hollywood’s hottest leading man, currently filming “The Liber-tine.”

MATT DAMON
[Honoree 1998]
Then: Played the title role in “Saving Private Ryan” after bagging an Oscar for co-writing “Good Will Hunting.”
Now: Reprising his role as Linus Caldwell in sequel “Ocean’s Twelve.”
MISSES
HOWIE LONG
[Honoree 1997]
Then: Former NFL bruiser went from film debut in “Broken Arrow” to leading man in “Firestorm.”
Now: Has filmed exactly one feature since — billed below Jon Lovitz in 2001 pic “3000 Miles to Graceland.”

MORGAN FAIRCHILD
[Honoree 1981]
Then: A familiar feather-haired beauty from TV, Fairchild was set to headline “The Seduction.”
Now: After an aborted movie career, Fairchild’s TV popularity peaked with such mid-’80s guilty pleasures as “Paper Dolls” and “Falcon Crest.”

RICHARD GRIECO
[Honoree 1991]
Then: The former “21 Jump Street” star toplined “If Looks Could Kill” and played a brat-pack version of Bugsy Siegel in “Mobsters.”
Now: He might be big in France, but judging by recent work, Grieco is MIA on the theatrical front.
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