Star brands take the heat

I wouldn’t like it if I were an actor, but most top stars these days have accepted the fact that they are referred to as “brands,” not just as actors.

It’s all very corporate and businesslike, but it also points up an eerie question: What happens when “brand value” is dissipated?

Two of the biggest stars, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise, have gone out of their way over the past year to point up their religious and ideological positions. Has this position-taking potentially eroded their brand value?

Study the public behavior of top stars and you can detect a keen attentiveness to brand value. Russell Crowe goes on the talkshow circuit and, explaining away his telephone-tossing propensities, repeats his mantra: “I was just trying to fulfill my basic obligations to my wife.”

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play love kittens in a lavish photo spread in W even as Pitt talks to starving children in Ethiopia (conveniently with Diane Sawyer by his side) and as Us Weekly shows him playing on a beach with Angelina in a different part of Africa.

It’s hard to equate all this with short-term box office results. The Pitt-Jolie movie took off like a rocket; the Russell Crowe movie (“Cinderella Man,” which was much better crafted) is a disappointment.

But “brand value” cannot be evaluated picture by picture. It’s affected long-term by the types of roles top stars are offered, and that raises some interesting questions. Given Tom Cruise’s widely advertised positions, would he be believable playing a doctor or a psychiatrist? Given the rigorous teachings of Scientology, would he be credible in any role in which he would have to counsel someone who is troubled?

The notion that Mel Gibson would be blackballed in the industry turned out to be preposterous, but could his “brand” now be believable in another “Lethal Weapon”-type dumb cop movie? Has he, to a degree, typecast himself in a very restrictive way? And has all the silliness involving Brad and Angelina compromised their ability to assume serious roles as serious people?

These questions are being raised in part because of the unorthodox behavior of the stars themselves, which is in turn exacerbated by the crazed overcoverage of celebrities in gossip magazines and blogs. Most movie-goers are overdosing on star coverage; it’s the ultimate example of too much information.

And that brings us back to brands. Summer tentpole pictures today are built on the principle of shared equity as embodied by first-dollar gross deals. The studio equity takes the form of production and marketing expenditures — easy to quantify. The equity contributions of superstars is not that easy: Their brand names ensure wide openings, solid advances from territorial distributors, strong output deals and, of course, incremental box office.

And therein lies the risk. If brand value is diminished, equity is reduced and the magic equations that make tentpole pictures possible begin to melt away. Which is a complicated way of saying: Careful, Tom, watch yourself, Russell, lighten up, Brad and Angelina. The brand you harm may be your own.

* * *

Aimless exes

It did not come as a surprise.

Michael Eisner let it be known last week that he had no intention of leaving the entertainment business once he steps down as CEO of Disney in October. He added, however, that he had no precise plan in mind.

While Eisner has not solicited advice from this column, we thought it might be helpful to pass along a few do’s and don’ts for those lucky individuals who become ex-CEOs.

DON’T go into business with your progeny and start producing. Sid Sheinberg’s Bubble Factory failed to enhance the notion of familial synergy.

DON’T try to buy control of Disney. People will say you’re a poor man’s Kirk Kerkorian, buying and selling the same company. And look what happened to him: He’s so bored, he’s buying automobile companies.

DON’T become commissioner of some sport. Fay Vincent became high priest of baseball after leaving as CEO of Columbia, and the stupid jocks were too busy juicing up to appreciate what a brilliant guy he was.

DON’T try to disappear into thin air like Ted Ashley, the brilliant chief of Warner Bros., who moved to New York and got very bored.

DON’T become engulfed in a blizzard of litigation like Michael Ovitz, who … well, you know about that story.

So what’s the ideal course of action? You’re a creative guy, Michael, you’ll figure it out. Just stop talking about summer camp — I hated camp, and I have the vague recollection that an Eisner look-alike was my camp counselor.

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