A-List actors struggle to prove their worth

Here’s the new benchmark for predicting box office performance: If a movie star heads the cast, downgrade the forecasts.

This may sound counterintuitive, but consider these names: Ben Stiller, Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Jude Law and Jamie Foxx.

All toplined recent projects that either underperformed or tanked. It’s a phenomenon that has not escaped the notice of distributors and dealmakers.

Repping a top star was once the coolest gig in town. All you had to do was keep saying “no” until that moment when the “right” project came along and you could up the ante (“You’re offering only 20-against 20? That’s so 2005!”)

Suddenly the game has become vastly more complex. Studios are fiercely resisting the escalation of gross participations. The looming possibility of a strike has stepped up the pressure to close deals quickly. Esoteric formulas from new equity players are tempting stars with new opportunities (as well as new traps). The take-no-prisoners media has raised the level of paranoia among top stars, who worry about protecting their careers.

David Denby, in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker, reminds us that Clark Gable was a tempestuous drunk who hung out with hookers, had false teeth and wrapped his car around a tree from time to time. Yet to the public at large, he was an exalted superstar who was above the fray.

Today’s stars aren’t that lucky. Hence the task of picking the “right” projects seems to be growing tougher — at least if you look at the results.

I respect actors like Clooney and Pitt for putting their names and talents behind films like “Michael Clayton” or “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Jodie Foster made a gutsy choice in “The Brave One.” Ben Stiller clearly didn’t want just another bland remake in “The Heartbreak Kid” — he tried for something edgier (or smarmier).

Yet the results remind us that while movie stars today can help open a picture, they sure as hell can’t guarantee success. Some distributors inevitably ask: Has the basic concept of a movie star become something of an anachronism?

Frankly, I feel empathy for the actors. When the studio system was in its heyday, stars could count on the support of vast publicity and marketing machines. Actors weren’t simply independent contractors; they were cogs in the giant dream factory.

Today there’s no such support system. Indeed, in some cases, the stars are so detached they don’t support their own projects — think Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig on “Invasion.”

“Young film actors now often say they don’t want to be typecast,” Denby reminds us, “but there’s a lot to be said for typecasting. Among other things, it makes an easy involuntary communion with a star possible for an audience. Not every actor has that unmistakably readable identity right away.”

As a result, while some acting careers may build, others prove evanescent. Ben Affleck went from being a “comer” in “Chasing Amy,” to a star in “Pearl Harbor” to a has-been in “Gigli,” and he’s barely 35 years old. Humphrey Bogart was still an unknown at that age, but when he achieved stardom it stuck.

Entertainment Weekly noted that Affleck’s appeal as a movie star was in inverse proportion to his appeal as a subject for magazine covers — he got 17 covers during the “Gigli” year and half as many for his hits. “You’re in a world out there that’s hostile. Bad things are going to happen to you,” Affleck reflected.

When you list the breakout movies of the past few years, few were true star vehicles. Think of tentpoles like “Transformers” or dramas like “The Passion of the Christ” or comedies like “Little Miss Sunshine.” True, the “Pirates” franchise couldn’t have worked without Johnny Depp camping it up, but no one expects “Sweeney Todd” to become a blockbuster because Depp sings in it.

So do stars still matter? Of course they do. The reason they became stars is usually because they have that special alchemy — part talent, part charisma. Their presence in a film usually adds to its quality, but there’s growing evidence that it doesn’t necessarily add to its box office.

“Of course, movie stars still exist … but there are fewer stars and they have come down in the world. They are paid more but valued less.”

So says David Denby.

And that’s why I am grateful not to be part of the negotiating process these days. After all, agents are well paid. And I’m beginning to think they earn it.

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