Stars no longer ensure box office profits

Buyers weigh wider set of factors for film choices

Once upon a time, all that a U.S. sales rep needed to score a big money presale with an international buyer was the attachment of one megastar. Script, budget, director, target audience, additional cast, even genre — that could all be figured out later. Those days are over, yet there are still some names that can get checkbooks open, although for smaller amounts.

The independent business has undergone a paradigm shift since the days when having a Hanks, Cruise or Schwarzenegger could automatically greenlight a movie. The sector is being hit by the shrinking international TV and DVD market, the rise of local pics at the B.O., the decline of nontentpole U.S. fare in many foreign theatrical markets and, on top of it all, the global credit crunch that is impacting everything from financing to TV ad sales to minimum guarantees.

“In the current climate, it’s less than ever a case of who gets your movie sold and more a case of what gets your movie sold,” says Stuart Ford, CEO of IM Global. “In a fiscally conservative buyer environment, what distributors will and won’t pay for is generally based on a more complex range of factors that equally include genre, cultural versatility of the script material, budget, evolving local audience tastes, U.S. distribution status and international release availability.”

Internet chatter also has challenged the “critic-proof” notions behind star vehicles, especially when a film with a major star receives poor reviews in the U.S. months before it hits overseas theaters.

“Star power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of a movie anymore,” says Summit Intl. prexy David Garrett. “A big name alone will not be enough to get people to see the film. One big reason, in my opinion, is the Web has allowed word of mouth to travel incredibly quickly around the world, so now audiences know before the film has come out in their market whether or not it’s any good. And that’s going to affect the success of any film, regardless of who’s starring in it.”

But while the era of blind, big-money, megastar-driven deals may be a thing of the past, there’s still at least one man who can greenlight a pic based on his attachment alone.

“I went on a hike with a buyer the other day and asked (him) which actors he’d be willing to write a check for without knowing anything else about the project, and he only gave me one name: Will Smith,” says Brian O’Shea, executive VP of worldwide distribution at Odd Lot Intl.

Garrett agrees. “Smith certainly seems to be in a place of his own right now, not just because of who he is, but because of the choices he makes,” he says.

Smith’s reputation isn’t hard to defend — seven of his past nine pics have grossed more than $200 million internationally, while two, “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Seven Pounds” — both dramas as opposed to actioners or comedies — clocked in at $144 million and $99 million, respectively. And Smith, like Bruce Willis before him, is known for dutifully promoting his pics overseas, which can help foreign grosses.

While no other thesp currently boasts Smith’s status at the B.O., there are a handful of other stars who have the clout to get films made and sold.

“There are still people out there, but the list is a lot smaller, and it really depends on the project,” says O’Shea. “I think Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can still greenlight a movie, along with George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Johnny Depp and a few others. But it’s not the same as it used to be. For a drama, for example, you won’t be able to get $30 million out of foreign, but you could get $5 million. You’re going to need a package, and that includes the script, director and U.S. distribution for starters.”

Jere Hausfater, CEO of Essential Entertainment, agrees it’s slim pickings these days. “We are in a challenging environment,” he says. “There are very few bankable stars these days. Some examples that come to mind are Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, as well as Ashton Kutcher in a comedy, and Jason Statham in an action film. On the female side, the obvious names are Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster and a few others. (These actors) will always have the pre-sale juice point. Unfortunately, the list is not growing substantially. The presale box is getting smaller and so are the amounts buyers are willing to pay.”

This shift away from star-driven pre-sales coupled with the credit crunch is being felt in every corner of the business, in ways both overt and subtle.

“Overall, it has affected the industry dramatically, because the bank notices that guaranteed presales are taking very long to close,” says Lisa Wilson, prexy of international distribution at GK Films. “I’ve heard of stories about films in the middle of production that have bank notes that still haven’t cleared yet.”

Wilson also underlines how the rise of local production around the world has impacted the sale of American independent product globally.

“That being said,” she adds, “there will always be a place for the tentpole films. Nobody does tentpoles like the U.S.”

If high-concept films or those based on popular books or comicbooks have replaced the star system as the engine behind foreign sales, there’s no better example than “Twilight,” which boasted no A-list stars in its cast and still earned $380 million worldwide, half of that from outside the U.S.

And if the star system is going to make a comeback, it may very well be these types of vehicles that introduce them.

“If I were to bet on the next generation of huge stars, I’d put my money on the cast members coming out of ‘Twilight,’ especially Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart,” says Hausfater. “They played roles that audiences around world really responded to. There was an emotional interaction between the audience and those actors, and that interaction traveled around the world.”