June 27, 2003 -- — Celebrities may sell magazines, but they don't sell movie tickets.
A year ago, we postulated that movie stars are vastly overrated in terms of their box office clout. Now, we've got statistical proof: Our study of more than 200 recent films revealed that fewer than half of the highest-grossing hits featured a star.
That's nothing new: Since 1975, when Jaws inaugurated the blockbuster era with an animatronic fish in the title role, half of Hollywood's most popular movies have lacked a flesh-and-blood star.
While movie stars are synonymous with box office, it has long been the case that the biggest movies of all, whether E.T., Star Wars or Jurassic Park, don't necessarily need them. In recent years, Spider-Man and the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films fit this pattern as well: plenty of action and special effects, but no stars.
Star Power Sometimes Works
More surprising was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which has grossed $241 million to date without stars and without special effects. (For purposes of this story, we define a star as an actor who has already had top billing in at least one movie that grossed at least $60 million. Tobey Maguire, for instance, wasn't a star before he played Spider-Man, though he is one now.)
Ocean's Eleven was long forgotten, but Clooney and Pitt revived interest.
In Hollywood, of course, stars are needed not so much because they pull people in, but because they push movies out. Without a recognizable name, it is vastly more difficult to get a green light from a studio or financing based on the presales of international territories.
Remaking Ocean's Eleven, a mediocre movie that did modest business, may sound like a lousy idea; but remaking it with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts — as AOL Time Warner did — that's a no-brainer. When it winds up grossing $183 million in the United States alone, that's genius!
Indeed, inside Hollywood, stars are defined largely in terms of their bankability — that is, their ability to attract money to a project. The studios know that stars cannot guarantee box office success, but they can safeguard against the downside risk. A star is a form of insurance.
For that reason, most movies do have stars, and these big-name actors do seem to provide some form of protection. The protection is highly imperfect, however, and stars grace even the worst flops. Sometimes, to borrow a phrase from Sam Goldwyn, the people stay away in droves, star or no star.
Stars That Fail to Ignite
Since the start of 2001, 252 movies (not counting animated features) have earned at least $10 million at the U.S. box office, according to data provided by Daniel Garis of Boxofficereport.com. One hundred and fifty six, or 62 percent, feature at least one star. But stars are less prominent at the top of the heap. Of the 36 top hits that grossed $125 million or more, just 16, or 44.4 percent, had stars.
In the middle of the pack, stars were more present, giving credence to the insurance theory. Twenty-nine films grossed between $75 million and $125 million, and 72.4 percent of these featured a star.
But a star — or even two — is no guarantee. A studio can hire Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush, and buy a book by John Le Carré, and still bomb, as Sony's Columbia Pictures did with The Tailor of Panama.
All told, 56.8 percent of the worst flops — films that grossed less than $20 million — had a star and failed nonetheless.
For more, go to Forbes.com..