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Chris Hicks: Can Hollywood still afford 'The Movie Star'?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 3:01 p.m. MDT

Angelina Jolie as "Elise" and Johnny Depp as "Frank" in Columbia Pictures' THE TOURIST.

Peter Mountain, Peter Mountain

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There's been a lot of buzz lately about whether the movie star is dead. And by "the movie star," I mean The Movie Star.

You know, those supernovas in the Hollywood galaxy who are supposed to be able to "open" a picture on any given weekend, as in, will moviegoers flock to the new film that comes out on Friday just because (fill in your favorite star's name) has the lead role?

We're talking Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, etc.

This is no small question for the motion-picture industry. The major studios, which, try as they might, can't seem to make a movie for less than a couple hundred million bucks these days, are finally starting to realize that the current economy is on shaky ground and it might actually be having an impact on moviegoers' spending habits. (Hollywood executives are a little slow on the uptake.)

Looking at the grosses weekend by weekend, some had concluded that perhaps a dearth of good movies was keeping audiences away. Au contraire. If bad movies kept audiences away, the numbers wouldn't be low; they'd be zero.

Anyway, it's not like the old days, when you felt comfortable going to see a movie just because James Stewart or Lana Turner or Clark Gable or Bette Davis or Cary Grant was in it. Back then if the movie wasn't very good, at least it wasn't offensive. Today the movie might be bad and the content might be worse.

My wife has her own big four: Johnny Depp, Will Smith, George Clooney and Denzel Washington. And the rule has always been that we have to see their movies on opening day.

Hey, I know the rules and I've tried to keep them in mind when we plan our trips to the local cinema. But she's come to realize that each of those guys occasionally makes a movie that not only isn't very good, it may make her cringe.

So the amended rule now is that we go to Depp, Smith, Clooney and Washington's movies on opening day — unless the reviews make them sound too cringeworthy. (It's a personal thing; your cringe barometer maybe different than your neighbor's.)

So, back to the question: Are today's superstars worth the millions they command just to get their names above the titles?

And this speaks not just to the superstars — not just the Matt Damons and Leonardo DiCaprios and Meryl Streeps and Adam Sandlers of Hollywood — but also to lower-tier stars.

What about Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl, who continue to reap multi-million-dollar paydays for movies that too often sputter at the box office? And is Johnny Depp really worth multiple millions to star in a movie if "Pirates of the Caribbean" isn't in the title? Can Bruce Willis bring in the masses if "Die Hard" isn't on the marquee? Does Tom Cruise carry a guarantee without "Mission: Impossible" preceding a Roman numeral?

These are the questions with which Hollywood is currently grappling. But it seems to me they are making it more complicated than it needs to be.

Whatever happened to back-end percentages?

We hear a lot about big stars getting a piece of the action to earn millions for themselves when they are wanted for a blockbuster that is more or less guaranteed to soar into the box-office stratosphere, such as franchise sequels. But maybe that should simply be the business model for everything.

Instead of an upfront payday of $20 million or $30 million or whatever the going rate is these days for Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Robert Downey Jr. — what if they simply got a percentage of the profits? Then, if the film makes money, they make money. But if not …

Hey, it might give them motivation to make better movies!

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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