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.