Hollywood studios routinely shell out $20 million paychecks and serve up rich percentages of a film's revenue to A list stars like Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp on the premise that their famous faces ensure packed movie houses around the world on opening weekend.
But are these superstars worth it?
According to Forbes' first-ever list of Ultimate Star Payback, the movie stars who deliver the best bang for the buck aren't the industry's top earners. Matt Damon, the soft-spoken leading man in box office winner The Bourne Ultimatum, turns out to be Hollywood's best investment. For every dollar Damon got paid for his last three roles, his films returned $29 of gross income. And, surprisingly, former Friends star Jennifer Aniston is Hollywood's most profitable actress, despite duds like Rumor Has It.
For ever dollar the former Mrs. Pitt was paid for her last three major roles, her films on average returned $17 of gross income.
The first step in calculating our payback figures required adding up the film's worldwide box office and U.S. DVD revenues. We then subtracted the budget (which includes the up-front compensation for actors) for each film to derive net revenue.
Next, to calculate gross income, the actor's total compensation was divided into net revenue. The gross income for the last three movies for each actor was averaged to calculate his or her ultimate payback. We deliberately used gross income rather than net income in our analysis because the former is a better measure of a movie star's ability to generate income for a film.
Check out a slideshow of actors deliver the best returns for their pay at our partner site, Forbes.com.
Movie studios are famous for their accounting creativity. The further down the profit and loss statement you travel, the more room for chicanery. While there is little debate over a film's budget, marketing expenses are treated differently for almost every movie.
In Tinseltown, a film must be able to recover its production budget to be considered a box office success. The only film on the list that didn't recover its costs at all was Gigli (2003) starring Jennifer Lopez, which reportedly cost $54 million to make but barely earned a fraction of that at the box office and on video.
Damon earned the top spot mainly through his work playing an amnesiac spy in the Bourne trilogy. In 2004 Universal Studios made The Bourne Supremacy for $75 million--downright cheap for a summer action flick--and grossed $290 million in worldwide box office, plus another $165 million in video sales and rentals. Damon's total compensation for that film was just $26 million, a bargain for Universal. The latest installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, opened in theaters this past weekend with $70.2 million in box office receipts in the U.S., the biggest August opening weekend ever.
Screen heartthrob Brad Pitt seized second place, thanks in good measure to his enormous appeal overseas. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example, co-starring his current real-life love interest Angelina Jolie, grossed $186 million stateside. The 2004 Trojan War epic Troy made $133 million in U.S. box office receipts. It nearly tripled that abroad.
Tying for third place are Johnny Depp and Vince Vaughn. Depp, who earns $20 million per picture, has logged some $2.2 billion at the box office for his last three films. Vaughn's going rate has been roughly half that. But Vaughn's last trio of movies-- The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball --have been box office bonanzas relative to their low production costs. (At $52 million, The Break-Up's budget was roughly 20% of Dead Man's Chest. )
Aniston is the actress with the highest Star Payback. Despite swipes from the critics, her generally low-budget films grossed on average $17 for every $1 she was paid. Aniston's standing was buoyed by her role in The Break-Up, which banked an estimated $270 million in worldwide box office and video.
In terms of their returns to Hollywood studios, Vaughn and Aniston eclipse most of their $20 million per film colleagues in Hollywood. Movies starring Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Will Smith average roughly $12 in gross income per salary dollar.
The biggest disappointers are Hollywood's coterie of top-earning funnymen-- Adam Sandler (at $9) and Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey ($8 each)--who rank near the bottom of the list. One reason: American comedies don't translate as well as action flicks to foreign audiences. Ferrell's Talladega Nights, for example, did just $15 million overseas, versus $148 million at the domestic box office.
Their films are also increasingly pricey affairs--in part because they are so well compensated--setting the bar excruciatingly high for a bona fide hit. Last year, Sandler headlined Click, which cost $83 million, while Carrey's Fun With Dick and Jane (2005) had a reported budget of $100 million. Compare that with lower-budget blockbuster comedies like The Wedding Crashers ($40 million), The 40-Year-Old-Virgin ($26 million), and Borat ($18 million).
At the very bottom of our list is Russell Crowe, whose standing in Hollywood has shrunk since he scored back-to-back consecutive Oscar nods for The Insider (1999), Gladiator (2000) and A Beautiful Mind (2001). Crowe's last three films earned on average just $5 in gross income for every dollar spent on the star. His most recent, last year's A Good Year, was made for $35 million, almost one-third of which went to Crowe's salary. The film earned only $40 million in worldwide box office, making it a huge disappointment for Fox, which produced and distributed it.