Are movie stars a waste of money?

Flops like After Earth and The Lone Ranger show highly paid Hollywood star power is on the wane.

Overpaid?... Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Tom Cruise (Credit: Disney/Rex/Universal)

Bad news Johnny Depp fans. His huge new summer blockbuster ‘The Lone Ranger’ is going to be a flop, in the USA at least.

After lukewarm reviews, the film earned a mere $10 million (£6.5 million) on its first day and is course for a $36 million-ish opening weekend.

That sounds like a lot, but the figure is “disastrous” according industry insider Nikki Finke, especially considering the whopping $200-250 million budget.

Those reviews didn’t help of course, but this is still a blockbuster from the same team – Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and studio Disney – that bought you the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. Films that made almost two and half billion at the global box office between them.

[The movie 'flops' that actually made loads of cash]

So what’s changed? If studios knew for certain then films would never flop of course, but the probable failure of ‘Ranger’ does seem to fit a pattern.

This summer ‘White house Down’, ‘After Earth’ and ‘The Internship’ crashed and burned with punters. All three are big budget vehicles for their stars – Channing Tatum, Will Smith and the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson axis.

2013 has also seen Bruce Willis’ latest ‘Die Hard’ and Ryan Gosling headliner ‘Gangster Squad’ sink, while Tom Cruise sci-fi ‘Oblivion’ only made a smallish profit.

A year when Cruise, Smith and Depp projects disappoint is a very strange year indeed. The trio are - or were - considered box office bankers and are paid as such.

According to some sources, Tom Cruise at one point earned $70 million a movie (for ‘Mission: Impossible II’), while Depp reportedly pocketed $55 million for the fourth ‘Pirates’.

Smith negotiates lucrative backend deals on his projects, meaning he gets a cut of the gross.  Speaking to Yahoo! Movies UK, ‘White House Down’ and ‘Independence Day’ director Roland Emmerich described the madness of star salaries and Hollywood accounting.

“I think in ‘Men In Black 3’, [Will Smith] probably made more money than the studio. I would even guess that the studio lost money. The movie made like $600 million nearly. But only $300 went to the studio. The movie cost $250, plus £100 million or $120 million in advertisement. And then on top of that comes the $50 or $60 or $70 million they have to pay to Will Smith and the producers. I think they lost money on that.”

Back in the 90s studios were okay with backend deals, because they only included a small proportion of the DVD profits - which used to be enormous. But now that market has collapsed, and margins are much tighter.

It’s also why Will Smith is too expensive to cast in the ‘Independence Day’ sequel.

Compared to some stars though, this trio provide value for money. Every year Forbes publishes a list of the ‘Most overpaid Hollywood stars’ – the actors whose films earn the least cash compared to their salary.

Eddie Murphy topped the list, which also featured Katherine Heigl, Jack Black and Ben Stiller. Amazingly, Murphy still gets paid $7.5 million a film, despite recent elusive commercial success (excepting ‘Shrek’).

These huge paypackets are based on the assumption that a star can “open a movie” – that a Depp or a Cruise on the poster is enough to get punters into the cinema.

But those days appear to be over. Now it’s concepts and recognizable franchises that entice us to the cinema. The stars are almost incidental.

Look at by far the most profitable genre right now: the superhero movie. Megahit ‘Man of Steel’ starred Henry Cavill, most familiar from TV show ‘The Tudors’. Talented supporting actor Andrew Garfield played the title role ‘Spider-Man’ reboot, while ‘Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and 'Captain America’s Chris Evans are not A-list leading men.

‘Avatar’, the biggest movie of all time, was fronted by virtual unknown Sam Worthington.

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Emmerich told us audiences go to the cinema less, probably because of ticket prices. When they do go, they want characters and worlds they’re familiar with.

“That’s why they go see these comic book heroes,” he said. “Because they know that Hollywood will always put a lot of money into them, to make them as good as possible. Secondly they love to go to sequels, because for the sequel they think the studio will spend the same amount of money. It’s why people are inclined to only go and buy clothes in say 30 stores all over the world. There’s no little boutiques anymore.”

Robert Downey Jnr. is the big exception to this trend. His last two films ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘The Avengers’, were the highest grossing films of 2012 and 2013 (so far). While based on comics, they’re still seen as fuelled by his star power and accordingly he’s the highest paid actor in the world right now. He got $50 million for ‘Avengers’, and his recently renegotiated contact for the sequels could be much higher.

Eventually Disney will have to recast Tony Stark. Then we’ll see if the success of these films is actually down to Downey Jnr.’s wry charm, or the Marvel universe itself.

Are movie stars worth the money? Let us know your thoughts below…