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Movie Stars Have Become an Endangered Species

Summer blockbusters make studios happy, but they make stars nervous. That’s because a lizard is the real star of “Godzilla,” not an actor. And in franchises like “Captain America,” “Spider-Man” or “X-Men,” the superhero is the brand, while the casts seem interchangeable. The several tentpoles that emerged from “Pirates of the Caribbean” enhanced Johnny Depp’s salary, but the Depp brand didn’t enhance “Transcendence” or “The Lone Ranger.”

The art of managing a star’s career has become challenging in Hollywood’s New Economy. In years past, major projects could be pre-sold worldwide on star names, but distributors know they can’t be monetized to the same degree any more. Warners may pour $200 million or so into “Batman v Superman,” but its potential success won’t depend on Ben Affleck’s chemistry with Henry Cavill.

That’s why I have come to admire the aggressiveness, and unorthodoxy, with which young actors like Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen have set about building their careers. I even grudgingly respect the rampant egomania of Seth MacFarlane and James Franco. Rather than wait for roles to come along, these actors are so prolific in cobbling together their own projects that their fans don’t have time to notice the occasional missteps.

(Jason Schneider for Variety)

And there are a few: “Neighbors” is a big hit, but can’t Rogen recruit a sleek stunt double to do his sex scenes? Does MacFarlane really believe he’s the next Charlie Chaplin (Charlie also wrote, acted, directed and composed the score, as MacFarlane did in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”). In the same vein, does Franco really want to set a Guinness record for sheer ubiquity?

By contrast, Hill could easily obsess on “Jump Street” sequels, but he keeps turning up in ambitious films like “Moneyball,” “Wolf of Wall Street” or his upcoming picture about Richard Jewell, the security guard at the Olympics in Atlanta who was famously framed (Leonardo DiCaprio is again his co-star).

I also respect those stars who yearn to direct, though that is a still riskier path. Ryan Gosling found that out in Cannes where his “Lost River” got lost. Jon Favreau got clobbered by critics for directing “Cowboys & Aliens,” then made a superb new film, “Chef,” about a culinary artist’s battle with a malevolent critic. Angelina Jolie moved from her “Lara Croft” action films to directing the ambitious but box office-challenged “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” then rebounded with the idiosyncratic “Maleficent.”

Favreau’s disdain for critics is shared by other talent, including MacFarlane. “Trying to please critics is like putting on a puppet show for your parents,” the “Million Ways” director said recently. Critics, he noted, are not fueled by laughs but “by outrage.”

Then there’s Adam Sandler, arguably the most productive star in terms of generating product, but one who is so consistently hammered by critics that he won’t even talk to the print media. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, in his latest Sandler savaging, expressed shock at “the sheer audience-insulting incompetence” of his new film, “Blended.”

The best way to have the last laugh, of course, is to make a good movie. That’s what Mike Myers has done in a new documentary oddly called “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” which traces the bizarre career of the fabled manager who first repped Alice Cooper and other rock stars, then became the guru of celebrity chefs.

Myers admires odd careers. He stopped making “Austin Powers” movies more than a decade ago, and got bruised in films like “The Love Guru,” which bombed.

I would ask Myers why he’s been absent for so long — except he doesn’t talk to the media either.

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