Honey, They Shrunk My Value

by James Ulmer

If you think the global economy has hit the skids recently, take a look at the world's most bankable movie actors.

It's a recession out there.

In nearly every market sector, Hollywood's blue-chip star stock has fallen. The ability of an actor's name alone to attract full funding for a movie has significantly weakened since our last major global survey in 2007.

For most years since the mid-90s, at least a half-dozen familiar faces - Cruise, Hanks, Pitt and Roberts among them -- have been tucking themselves onto the A+ list as handily as sea lions flopping onto a warm beach rock.

But that rock continues to shrink as the cold waters of financial risk and uncertainty, and a rapidly fragmenting entertainment marketplace, inexorably rise.

Today, traditional movie stars must compete for eyeballs with all kinds of screens beyond the silver one, and most of those are shrinking, too: TV, the Internet, Blackberries, iPhones, wristwatches - you get the picture. There are doubtless trade shows being conjured up at this moment to promote 10 new ways of downloading the next Johnny Depp franchise in 1.2 seconds onto your fingernail. Nail salons may find entirely new revenue streams selling popcorn.

In the meantime, Depp is sitting comfortably on that small sunny rock, sharing it with Will Smith - the only two left on the A+ list. As usual, they ride the advantage of a global marketplace that consistently rewards stars of action-adventure franchises, the genre that travels best worldwide and which is still overwhelmingly a boy's club. They're also among the precious few of the top-echelon stars who saw their bankability scores rise in the past two years instead of ebbing southwards. Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep were two of the lucky ones in this regard, too.

Top-drawer female talent seems to have borne the brunt of the current star recession. Former #1 female star Julia Roberts slipped 11 points to 12th place overall (a big dip for such a solid marquee name), moving off the A+ list for the first time in more than 15 years. That's due in large part to her lowered output of films. And the one-time #2 actress Nicole Kidman slipped down to 9th place among women, sliding off the A list altogether (as did Jodie Foster) by shedding a whopping 17 bankability points - the largest drop of any of the ladies.

For a look at the full tally of who the biggest gainers and losers are in star power, check out our new ‘Uppers' vs. ‘Downers' list and graph (p.450). Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Craig top the ‘uppers' with gains of 43 points and 36 points, respectively, proving once again that it never hurts to have a megahit action-adventure franchise in your career pocket.

Those pockets are getting mighty shallow for the biggest ‘downers' on the list: Mel Gibson (-26) and Jim Carrey (-21). Remember Gibson's 2006 drunk driving fiasco with a soupçon of anti-Semitic slurs tossed in? Our industry graders certainly did. They also haven't forgotten that Gibson skidded off his acting career track by focusing on directing; alas for him, reduced face time on screen nearly always translates to lower scores. (Some actors are more resistant to this rule, notably Jack Nicholson.) Gibson made a stab of sorts at returning to the limelight by starring in a film that seemed aptly titled for his acting career: The Edge of Darkess.

And love his manic-boy shtick or not, Jim Carrey is certainly a Hollywood Yes Man when it comes to hopping on board movie projects he clearly should have said ‘no' to. (The Number 23 vaults to mind).

Still, playing comedy remains one of the best insurance policies for an actor's box office viability and career longevity, as Robert DeNiro discovered in a little film called Analyze This. And if it's dark times that comedy shines brightest in, all the bad news of today's global gestalt may actually help the box office of movies that showcase funny guys like Will Ferrell (up 5 points this year), Jack Black (+8), Mike Myers (+2), Robert Downey Jr. (+17) and Rowan Atkinson (+32).

Or not. There's always the exceptions that smash the rules: Robin Williams (-18), Ben Stiller (-6), Eddie Murphy (-13) and, of course, that maestro of misapplied comic talent, Carrey. It just goes to show that funny guys are mostly funny on their own and rarely, if ever, travel in packs, much less in trends.

Luckily, moviegoing itself is proving immune to the slings and arrows of the current economic downturn. As with other bleak moments in our economic history, it's no surprise that the number of people watching movies in cinemas has surged (as much as 10% since the housing crash of 2008, by some counts) as consumer confidence has plunged. Presumably, folks want to find some solace in their surrender to the stories on the big screen.

Which, thankfully, remains big. Despite all the "Hollywood on the Web" seminar alerts crowding my Linked-in mailbox, and the gigabytes of studio trailers I've happily ogled on my iPhone, movie stars will still be necessary in order to make - well, movies. Whether those stars are as overplayed and over-hyped as Tom Cruise, as luminously un-Hollywood as Kate Winslett or as independently-minded and marketed as Parker Posey, they'll still drive the revenues for an industry that, hopefully, will help drive us to better times.

No doubt they'll be competing for eyeballs with torrents of terabytes from hoards of online impresarios, including a few of the actors in this book. But what's the worry? That only means Hollywood's producers will need to summon better writing, better casting and smarter producing in creating their feature-length projects. That's a good thing for an oversaturated feature marketplace, assuming those nail salon moguls don't beat everyone to the best stories.

Meanwhile, we invite you to use the Actors Hot List as you raise financing, start casting and build your sales, marketing and distribution strategies for your projects. It's a valuable tool for helping you make wiser decisions about an always risky business, perhaps riskier now than ever.

I am reminded here of the words of one uniquely tough lady who knew how to analyze a challenged and changing industry better than most:

"I'm big," proclaimed the brazen Norma Desmond at the gates of Paramount in Sunset Boulevard, about the same time that television was starting to wreak havoc on the studios' business models, only to become a golden retriever of studio revenue for decades to follow. "It's the pictures that got small."

Yes, Norma knew that stars can still be big when the screens get tiny. She'd probably laugh at anyone who dared to doubt that movies couldn't find "eyeballs" despite, and maybe because of, the havoc wreaked by new technologies. If she were alive today, I'd imagine her standing regally on that tiny rock reserved for the world's utmost stars, looking rather dismissive as the waves of the industry's rising tides of change lap gently at her evening gown. Digitized waves, at that.

And if the waters edged up too high, what would she do? (After, that is, she elbowed the other stars off the rock to generate a fabulous profile for the paparazzi on the shore.)

She'd probably toss off another laugh, then step over to a bigger rock, one with a better view of her audience. And on higher ground.

Which is where she and the rest of the world's most bankable stars will always belong.★

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