Stars hit box office sweet spot

Will Smith among actors who have stayed hot

Call it the Fluke Zone. It’s a place where a movie star can do no wrong. Audiences love you no matter what you do. The trick is to stay in the Zone as long as possible.

It’s hard to get there. Few actors ever make it. Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf are getting close this summer. But will auds put them over the top?

The rewards are huge at the top of the Hollywood food chain. You can cherry-pick the best and most commercial projects, and in theory, enjoy years of jet-set glory along with hefty cuts of the first-dollar gross.

But it’s not easy. Beyond possessing the usual movie-star assets, staying at the top takes smarts, tenacity and an ability to tune in to what audiences want. Assuming you care.

Many stars fall out of the Fluke Zone when they lose touch with their fans. They tire of the limitations of carrying formula studio pics. Audiences see a star in the Zone as someone who delivers every time.

That was once true for Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. But not anymore. They’re maturing, taking more chances, seeking just the right balance of commercial and quality, straying from what audiences want. That doesn’t mean they can’t score the occasional B.O. smash. It just means they no longer guarantee them. “If you expand past the audience comfort zone,” says producer James Jacks, “you’re not a brand name anymore.”

Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis seesaw between studio tentpoles like “National Treasure” and “Live Free or Die Hard” and more adventurous fare. Johnny Depp, for example, is never going to color inside studio lines. He followed up his three-“Pirate” $2.76 billion B.O. bonanza with the serial-killer Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd.” Not surprisingly, it did not break box office records. But he nabbed an Oscar nom.

Looking at this summer’s movies, there’s only one star in the Zone: Will Smith.

The hardest-working man in showbiz is doing what it takes: picking blockbusters crammed with f/x and action such as the “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” series, “I Robot” and “I Am Legend,” along with the occasional acting showcase, from the career-turning “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Ali” to his Oscar-nommed turn in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” And Smith, borrowing a page from Cruise and Schwarzenegger, works long hours burnishing his press on global promo tours. All that elbow grease has paid off.

This summer, in Peter Berg’s “Hancock,” Smith plays a homeless superhero. Will his B.O. run continue? Nothing lasts forever.

Age is an enemy of the Zone, especially for muscle action stars. Schwarzenegger and Stallone could only last so long.

With a far wider range, Harrison Ford, 65, defined the smart action hero. He has resolutely stayed the superstar course in the three decades since he broke out in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars.” However, his insistence on $20 million-plus paydays in recent years has hurt him. He says he works too hard not to get paid.

He pushed hard for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”; finally Lucas and Steven Spielberg came through, helping the star pull out of an eight-year slump that included “Six, Days, Seven Nights,” “Hollywood Homicide,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” and “Firewall.”

It’s tougher for women. While men grow into their masculine authority, reaching their prime in their 40s, women have a shorter shelf life in the Zone. Hollywood doesn’t allow them much room for error.

But Angelina Jolie is breaking the mold. While she is not in the Zone — “A Mighty Heart” proves that — she could be. Jolie is Hollywood’s first bona fide femme action star (“Alien” star Sigourney Weaver paved the way). Jolie mixes it up with the best of them. She can be tough, sexy, lethal, funny and heartbreaking, from her career-making Oscar turn in “Girl, Interrupted” to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” in which she met her match and partner, Brad Pitt.

While Jolie’s output is uneven, she can open genre flicks, forging a path for ambitious actresses to follow. Universal paid her $15 million to return to action in the fantastical R-rated thriller “Wanted,” anchoring the pic with Morgan Freeman opposite the lesser known James McAvoy (“Atonement”). “She established the movie’s quality and legitimacy,” Universal Pictures co-chairman Marc Shmuger says.

A powerful character actress, Meryl Streep has never been a Zone star. But like Jodie Foster, she delivers something valuable: a stamp of quality (which means nothing with a movie no one wants to see, like “Lions for Lambs” or “Rendition”). Now 58, Streep proved her B.O. muscularity in “The Devil Wears Prada,” which scored $125 million at the domestic box office. This summer brings the Abba movie musical “Mamma Mia!” which may not be as pre-sold as the movie version of HBO’s long-running “Sex in the City,” but still has a sizable global following of women of all ages from the traveling hit show.

Comedy stars also have a shorter shelf life in the Zone. Somehow they catch the zeitgeist for several years, only to be replaced by a newer, fresher comedy ethos. Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey lost their link with the audience by taking big paychecks for bad movies or simply trying too hard.

Audiences turned instead to the likes of Steve Carell, who followed Carrey in the disappointing “Bruce Almighty” sequel “Evan Almighty” and stars in this summer’s TV remake “Get Smart”; multihyphenate Ben Stiller, who directed and stars in this summer’s “Apocalypse Now” spoof “Tropic Thunder”; and Will Ferrell, who also produces and co-stars with John C. Reilly in the Apatow factory release “Step Brothers.” These stars like to take chances on risky material, and seem willing to slip on a banana peel now and then.

On the other hand, “Austin Powers” star Mike Myers seems under more pressure to stay a major money player. He is also battling a rep for difficult behavior. While Myers has been delivering in the animated “Shrek” universe, the comedy chameleon flopped in his last live-action pick, 2003’s overwrought “The Cat in the Hat.” Dumb-male comedy “Love Guru” will reveal the strength of his audience connection.

The exception to the comedy rule is master-of-disguise Eddie Murphy, who has stayed relevant through successive generations. Murphy doesn’t play himself, as Adam Sandler does, repeatedly. Thanks to animated movies (“Shrek”) and prosthetics, Murphy morphs constantly; his range is astonishing. In “Meet Dave,” opening July 11, he plays a spaceship in human form.

“Any time we become too familiar with anything, it ceases to be interesting to us,” says producer John Davis, who has made four movies with Murphy and is wooing him to play multiple characters in “Fantasy Island.” “The smartest thing you can do is a family movie. Let the audience discover you. Murphy comes back every few years and builds a brand new audience. You can reinvent yourself. Other actors age up.”

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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