Stars: They Ain't What They Used to Be

George, Tom and Julia can no longer make blockbusters with their names alone.

April 8, 2008 — -- George Clooney. Mud. Football. Again, George Clooney.

You'd think if anyone could get American audiences off their iPhones and into a real movie theater, it would be the Oscar winner and two-time title holder of People's Sexiest Man Alive. You'd be wrong.

Clooney's "Leatherheads" bombed at the box office over the weekend, fumbling to third place behind gambling drama "21" and family flick "Nim's Island." To be sure, $13.5 million sounds like a ton of money. But Clooney, who not only starred in the 1920s football comedy, but also directed and helped write it, was expected to bring in a bigger bounty than that.

"Considering he directed it, starred in it, and as he said, overhauled the script, he could've been getting $20 million for that movie. If you're getting paid $20 million, you should open the movie at $20 million," said Nikki Finke, who runs the entertainment industry blog Deadline Hollywood Daily. "You can point to a lot of reasons why this movie didn't do well. But you would expect someone who is a box office star to override the problem."

And it's not just Clooney. Hardly any actor can draw moviegoers to theaters based on name value alone anymore.

Take Tom Cruise — "Mission Impossible" was the third highest grossing film of 1996, scoring $45 million in its opening weekend. Cruise's most recent movie, 2007's "Lions for Lambs," opened at $6.7 million. Or Julia Roberts — "Erin Brockovich" bagged $28 million when it hit theaters in 2000. "Charlie Wilson's War," despite putting fellow A-list actors Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman alongside Roberts, opened at $9.7 million late last year.

There are the stars who sell tabloids — Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie and Katie Holmes, according to Forbes' 2007 analysis of top-selling celebrity faces. And there are the stars who sell movies — but who those stars are, the industry isn't quite sure.

"There's a distinction between being a movie star and being a box office star. Being a movie star means you get on the covers of magazines, you get a lot of tabloid coverage, you're talked about a lot. Being a box office star means you put moviegoers in theater seats," Finke said. "Right now, you're hearing Hollywood ask, 'Who is box office?' It's been extremely difficult to pinpoint. Will Smith is a box office star. Adam Sandler still has an audience, if it's a comedy. Will Ferrell has stumbled several times."

Those ever-present tabloids may be part of the problem.

"Maybe some of it is overexposure," Finke suggested. "Ben Affleck's career went down when he was on the cover of every magazine. Maybe it's a fatigue factor, maybe it's knowing too much about these people. There's a whole industry devoted to celebrity and it's removing magic, it's removing mystery."

It could also be that some stars pale in comparison to the people who make their movies. Judd Apatow produced two of last summer's biggest hits, "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" ($31 million and $33 million opening weekends, respectively). Though he faltered with fall's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" (which opened to a shudder-worthy $4 million) his name is still a selling point, even if his actors aren't household names (yet).

"The Judd Apatow laugh factory is sort of a powerful box office draw even though people aren't going to see Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill per se," said Steve Zeitchik, senior writer for The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not just actors anymore; there are people behind the camera and at the writing table who are driving the box office. It's just a lot more complicated than it used to be."

Maybe if Clooney had stripped off his bygone era football garb and suited up next to a co-star like Brad Pitt (sorry John Krasinski), he'd have a hit on his hands. Though he won an Oscar for "Syriana," Clooney's biggest box office success has been with the "Ocean's" franchise and its ensemble cast. Even if one star doesn't have much pull these days, it's still hard to compete with half a dozen. And a sexy plot never hurt anyone. (Look at the film that took the No. 1 spot at the box office over "Leatherheads" — clearly, gambling's a winner.)

"I think if Clooney had done something that had a greater appeal to younger audiences, it would've done well," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of box office analysis firm Media by Numbers. "If you look at 'Leatherheads' objectively, it's a period piece. It's a screwball comedy. It wasn't something that inspired audiences to go out to the theaters in a big way."

To be fair to the former "ER" hunk, the entire movie industry is wondering how to bring increasingly ambivalent audiences back into theaters. If it were as simple as mixing Clooney's good looks with Apatow's comedic genius and a dash of "Cloverfield's" viral buzz, studio executives would be putting out hits like Willy Wonka churned out chocolate. But, alas ...

"Right now, all movies are suffering from a marketplace that's really in a malaise," Dergarabedian said. Last year at this point we had three movies that had grossed over $100 million, this year we only have one. To the detriment of all movies, the audience just seems uninterested."