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Who Is Box-Office Gold? : Hollywood’s True Elite: Names Who Can ‘Open’ a Movie

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s not very long, and it’s not generally written down. But it’s one of the most exclusive lists in show business, and once you’re on, it takes multiple missteps to fall off.

We’re talking about the people who are said to be able to “open” a movie--not just top actors, but those superstars who generate the awareness and attendance on opening weekend that has become so crucial when the average studio film costs about $50 million to produce and market and arrives on 2,000 or more screens nationwide.

Sean Connery has been on the list for the better part of 30 years and Robert Redford has been there almost as long. Among the newcomers are Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt, who joined only last year. And someone who’d become a footnote, John Travolta, is roaring back in a blaze of glory.

But the list isn’t just made up of performers. Steven Spielberg belongs, certainly, as a director, but also as an executive producer (unless you think the friendly ghost opened “Casper”). Oliver Stone belongs, given the right picture. And the names of novelists John Grisham, Michael Crichton and, in some cases, Stephen King qualify.

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To be sure, the list of who can open a movie may contain as few as 20 names--many of those with qualifiers--and the pecking order changes regularly.

Given the sexist nature of Hollywood’s casting process, in the past 20 years or so there have rarely been more than one or two women on this list. Currently, there are at least five.

It took several successes like “Ghost,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Disclosure” to get Demi Moore on the list, but her asking price has now soared to $12.5 million (which she got for her next project, “Striptease”). And right behind her are Julia Roberts, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand and Sandra Bullock, who has opened two films in the past few months alone.

The other women on the list have opened certain kinds of films, but not all. Meg Ryan opens comedies and Jodie Foster even got “Nell” off to a good start. But neither has demonstrated the consistency of the top five leading actresses.

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Without a strong opening, a film can disappear quickly, and with it, all hopes at recoupment. “Everybody wants to feel there’s some protection,” says producer and former Paramount production head Gary Lucchesi. “And big stars play an enormous role in that.”

But it’s not enough to be a star. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep are stars. But their names are only in the margins of the list--and with asterisks. They may be box-office viable, but they do not guarantee long lines the minute a movie opens.

“It’s not like it was years ago when you knew that if you had Tracy and Hepburn or Clark Gable, you’d immediately have an audience the first weekend,” says Lee Rich, a Warner Bros. producer and former head of United Artists. “Audiences today are more sophisticated, so there are fewer guarantees.”

Being in with the in crowd is largely a “subjective assessment,” according to producer Marvin Worth. To some executives, Alec Baldwin and Denzel Washington are opening-weekend bait, to others they’re not.

Until “Stargate,” Kurt Russell was not considered someone who puts bodies in seats opening day--and some still question whether he does. But he’s getting $10 million for his next film, “Escape From L.A.”

Even superstardom sometimes isn’t enough. When doing Shakespeare, a major action superstar like Mel Gibson (“Hamlet”) is no more a magnet for his fans than say, Kenneth Branagh (“Much Ado About Nothing”). “If Mel Gibson does an art film like ‘Hamlet,’ ” says one studio distribution executive, “it opens pretty much like an art film.” (“Hamlet,” in fact, grossed less than “Much Ado.”)

“It’s more than just the actor,” one prominent entertainment attorney says. “It’s the actor in a role with which the audiences identifies him.” For Gibson, that means action, even period action like “Braveheart.” For Jim Carrey, it’s his style of broad comedy (even in the case of an adventure like “Batman Forever”).

The subjectivity shell game often makes the difference between one actor being cast in a role over another, or even whether a particular movie gets made. (When Redford pulled out of “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” the project fell apart.) Studio executives, producers and casting agents take the list very seriously. In fact, they bank on it.

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As one would expect, there is a hierarchy even among actors on the list, which is determined by several factors. While action superstars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone command top dollar ($15 million to $20 million per film) for their ability to open an adventure film, and stars like Carrey are expected to do the same for comedy, they’re not as versatile as the likes of Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise, who are able to open any kind of film.

When Cruise expressed interest in “Interview With the Vampire,” all discussions with other actors ceased. In its first week, “Interview” grossed $45 million. Ford opened “Patriot Games,” “The Fugitive” and “Clear and Present Danger,” helping take the latter two past $100 million, with “Patriot” not far behind.

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Apart from opening a film in the United States, the ability to forge a powerhouse opening around the world is a main criterion for inclusion on the list.

“Last year, for the first time, foreign box office was bigger than domestic,” one studio chief says. “It’s one reason why Stallone led the way in star salaries.”

Stallone will receive $17.5 million for his next film, “Daylight,” and has been signed for $20 million by Savoy Pictures for a picture yet to be determined.

This, despite the poor showing of “Judge Dredd” (about $35 million domestically). But it was an action film, and he at least got it open. A strong foreign presence has so far counterbalanced Stallone’s declining box-office prowess domestically.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a good draw stateside, but much bigger overseas. Despite the fact that, of her films, only “Basic Instinct” has been a big hit in the United States, Sharon Stone is the female equivalent of a sure thing in the foreign market. Casting her in the remake “Diabolique” makes Worth and Morgan Creek Productions’ job a lot easier when selling the film in the foreign market. For added overseas protection, they have also signed Isabelle Adjani. In Europe, particularly France, Adjani is among the Continental acting elite.

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Christopher Lambert is the rare star who opens an action film everywhere but the United States. And believe it or not, Charlie Sheen is a viable commodity because he opens films in Japan, the second-largest box-office market. That’s why he’s getting $7 million for his next movie.

“Once you are a star, your price may fluctuate, but your awareness continues to be strong, unless you really screw up,” Lucchesi says. That’s why actors who may not necessarily ensure an opening weekend like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino are sometimes paired--as in the upcoming movie “Heat"--on the theory that one plus one equals three.

Taking a broader view, “Spielberg is as big as any star right now,” Rich says. Directors such as Stone, John Singleton, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee also bring in their core audience opening weekend. Woody Allen had that same cachet at one time, but it has since eroded.

Depending on how his next film does, Quentin Tarantino could join that select group. A recent phenomenon has been novelists who open movies, namely John Grisham and Michael Crichton. “The Client,” which starred Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, had no strong box-office engine, but fans of Grisham’s source novel propelled the movie last summer.

Similarly, this year’s “Congo,” with a completely low-voltage box-office cast (and bad reviews to boot), debuted to $24 million based mostly on Crichton’s reputation coming off of “Disclosure” and “Jurassic Park.” Stephen King’s track record is more erratic, but when he scores, as with “Misery” or “Stand by Me,” he’s a value-added plus.

Yet it must be humbling to all the above actors, directors and authors to know that the person who’s been on the list the longest and whose name above the title still opens movies has been dead for almost 30 years. His name? Walt Disney.

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Money in the Bank

To one extent or another, every star on this list puts people in the seats on a movie’s opening weekend. But star drawing-power isn’t created equal, so here’s a ranking of who best can open a picture (listed alphabetically within categories), based on box-office data and industry interviews. (We’ve limited this list to talent that goes in front of the camera.)

The Big 5 (men’s division)

Sean Connery: An insurance policy. Propelled the low-profile thriller “Just Cause,” the forgettable “Rising Sun” and the unremarkable “Medicine Man.” He even got the disappointing “First Knight” off to a $10-million start.

Tom Cruise: Even a misstep like “Far and Away” initially brought in the curious and the loyal. In the right project, like “The Firm,” he’s solid gold. His next, “Mission: Impossible,” should be huge in ’96.

Michael Douglas: Without peer in male melodramas like “Disclosure.” But can he still open a romance like “Romancing the Stone”? “The American President” (with Annette Bening) will be the test.

Harrison Ford: Can do no wrong. Has opened everything from “The Fugitive” and “Clear and Present Danger” to the middling drama “Regarding Henry.” Next up is the romantic comedy “Sabrina.”

Tom Hanks: Four huge hits in a row: “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump” and “Apollo 13,” which without him could have been “The Right Stuff” all over again.

The Big 5 (women’s division)

Sandra Bullock: A year ago she appeared in the hit film “Speed,” and it’s been a fast ride ever since. She opened “While You Were Sleeping” and “The Net” to $10 million each, boosting her asking price to $6 million a film.

Whoopi Goldberg: She has proven to be hit (“Sister Act”) or miss (“Boys on the Side”), but in the right vehicle she can open a film with the best of them. Disney signed her for $20 million for two films.

Demi Moore: Typical of Hollywood’s chauvinism, the success of “Ghost” was attributed to Patrick Swayze and that of “Indecent Proposal” to Robert Redford. “Disclosure” changed that. She’ll get $12.5 million for “Striptease,” a record for an actress.

Julia Roberts: Can still open any film, including the disastrous “I Love Trouble” last. She proved it again this weekend with “Something to Talk About,” which took in an estimated $11.1 million at the box office.

Barbra Streisand: Like Redford, she works so infrequently that any film she appears in is an automatic event, and the fan club flocks to see it. Has the drama “The Mirror With Two Faces” due to start production this fall.

The next tier

Jim Carrey: Four major hits in about a year--"Ace Ventura, Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Batman Forever.” The “Ace” sequel is in the bag for Christmas. For next summer, he’s getting $20 million to open “The Cable Guy.” But could Carrey carry a drama?

Kevin Costner: Bumped down a notch by recent disappointments like “A Perfect World” ($8 million), “Wyatt Earp” and “The War.” But he did open “Waterworld,” to $21.6 million despite reams of bad personal and professional press.

Clint Eastwood: Has opened action dramas (“In the Line of Fire”) and comedies (“Any Which Way but Loose”) but dramatic efforts like “White Hunter, Black Heart” kept them away in droves. Helped (with Meryl Streep) start “The Bridges of Madison County” to more than $10 million, even though some critics thought he was miscast.

Mel Gibson: One of the best at action comedies (“Lethal Weapon” series). “Braveheart” started strongly and has passed $60 million. But in dramas like “Man Without a Face” ($4-million debut), Gibson has only average drawing power.

Eddie Murphy: He still attracts his core group the first weekend, even to a tired retread like “Beverly Hills Cop III.” “He could turn around and be in a $300-million movie tomorrow,” one studio marketing chief says. And as they say in the record industry, “Once on the charts, always on the charts.”

Robert Redford: Opened the melodramatic “Indecent Proposal” and could do the same for “Up Close and Personal” with Michelle Pfeiffer. Right now, though, he seems more devoted to his directing career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Opened “True Lies” at $25 million and bridged the comedy gap with “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop.” Opened “Junior,” but the film still did less than expected.

Sylvester Stallone: “Demolition Man” opened in 1993 at $15 million, and the disappointing “Judge Dredd” made almost half its $35-million total in its first weekend. His stabs at comedy (“Oscar,” “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot”) have fallen flat.

Robin Williams: “Mrs. Doubtfire” (final gross more than $200 million) elevated him to a new level. Has also brought his clout to bear to the occasional dramatic film, like “Dead Poets Society.” At Christmas he’ll propel the $70-million adventure “Jumanji.”

Bruce Willis: “Die Hard With a Vengeance” exploded to a $22-million debut. Dramatically, Willis works best as an ensemble player, as in “Pulp Fiction,” “Nobody’s Fool.”

And don’t forget...

These stars can open certain movies, and--like their higher-ranked counterparts--their involvement can get a picture made:

Geena Davis, Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Paul Newman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon, Steven Seagal, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, John Travolta, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Denzel Washington.


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