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Banking on a star vehicle? Slots of luck

“IT’S BECOME ONE BIG slottery,” quipped a director friend the other day, referring to the arcane craft of getting movies made. The studios, he explained, routinely tee up their pictures, hoping to grab Tom Cruise’s summer 2001 slot or Bruce Willis’ fall 2002 slot. If no slot is secured, the project will likely languish.

But here’s the paradox: Look down the list of movies that opened this fall and you’ll find one star vehicle after another that’s crashed and burned. The slottery doesn’t seem to be working.

Newly released movies with the following stars have either flopped or underperformed: Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, George Clooney, Nicolas Cage and Robin Williams.

Harrison Ford was fine in “Random Hearts,” but he couldn’t pull in an audience. Brad Pitt was at his best in “Fight Club,” but the film didn’t take off. As for Robin Williams (“Jakob the Liar”) and Nicolas Cage (“Bringing Out the Dead”), their films were D.O.A.

In the midst of all this, an economics professor coincidentally decided to release his report on the movie industry, which argued that the star system has become an anachronism. Meticulously charting the box office of some 200 films, S. Abraham Ravid of Rutgers U ends up wondering “why the star system is such a cornerstone of Hollywood Stars do very well for themselves and their agents, but they do not do much for the studios.”

Now, let me state upfront that I do not necessarily agree with the professor. Stars become stars because of talent and charisma. Cast in the right roles, they can add hugely to a movie’s box office clout. What would “Casablanca” have been minus Bogart and Bergman?

Further, stars clearly hype the performance of genre pictures around the world — witness Bruce Willis in “Armageddon” or Harrison Ford in “Air Force One.”

At the same time, something spooky is happening with the filmgoing public. Thanks to the Internet and other forces, “word of mouth” has made an amazing comeback. Moviegoers are “discovering” pics as never before, sometimes because of their stories (witness “The Sixth Sense”) and sometimes because of their mystique (“The Blair Witch Project”).

The public also seems bent on “discovering” new stars. A Leonardo DiCaprio will spring to instant stardom off “Titanic” or a Matt Damon off “Good Will Hunting.”

This fall, moviegoers clearly were more intent on discovering Ashley Judd exacting her revenge in “Double Jeopardy” than on re-discovering Michelle Pfeiffer, who gets $ 12 million a movie, in “The Story of Us.” Who would have predicted that audiences would rally to the side of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” or that a Nia Long-Taye Diggs movie, “The Best Man,” would finish atop the B.O. charts last week?

Ask the economics professor to explain all this and he will respond that the studios employ a perverse logic in supporting the star system. Sure, stars boost the revenues of their movies, but that’s mainly because their vehicles carry big budgets that are supported by huge marketing fusillades.

Essentially it comes down to bureaucratic self-protection, he argues. “Executives wish to be covered in case a project fails. If everybody is after a given star, signing him to a project may be a safe bet for an executive who is concerned about job security.”

Well, maybe. An executive’s confidence in a project is certainly reinforced when a star like Tom Hanks (who seems to have remarkably good taste in scripts) endorses it. Paramount had essentially put “Saving Private Ryan” in turnaround when Hanks happened to read it and decided to give it to Steven Spielberg. Suddenly the studio, which had been all set to shoot another World War II script instead, shifted gears. But again, Hanks was terrific in his role. He made it a star vehicle. The movie might not have worked as a Taye Diggs vehicle.

THUS, A STUDIO MAVEN could still argue that a given star is worth his price, except for the fact that the price keeps rising. Gone are the days when one can weigh the cost of a star in terms of dollars and percentages; now it’s the “incidentals” that are alarming the studios. As evidence, look at the emergence of the “auteur-star” in the person of Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible 2.” In the course of exercising his creative controls, Cruise, we are told, has helped stretch the shooting schedule toward the “Eyes Wide Shut” mark. Trying to elicit an estimated final cost from Paramount is like asking Bill Gates what he thinks of the colorful new iMac.

To be sure, a few stars cut their fees now and then in order to land better roles — witness Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty.”

So here’s the bottom line: The slottery clearly is cruel and quirky. It clearly isn’t a guarantee for delivering audiences. It’s clearly knocking out worthy projects along the way.

But if it’s all so clear, why is it so damned complicated?

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