Hollywood keeps faith with stars despite let-downs

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Now here's a surprise. Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have been named the three most bankable stars in Hollywood in an annual survey of industry insiders.

Oh, and they are closely followed by Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Russell Crowe, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.

Those were the names selected by the trade journal Hollywood Reporter yesterday from a poll of more than 100 industry executives in which actors were rated according to their ability to draw not just audiences, but also financing and distribution deals for the films they appear in.

What made the survey a little more surprising was the industry's faith in star power – even in a year where none of the biggest-grossing films featured any of the above-mentioned names, and quite a few prominent stars found themselves attached to less-than-stellar commercial propositions.

Cruise made more headlines because of his divorce from Nicole Kidman than he did at the box office. His most visible effort, the psycho-thriller Vanilla Sky, gained plenty of attention thanks to his romance with his co-star Penelope Cruz, but was largely panned by critics and has done only middling business.

Roberts' most notable achievement in 2001 was, likewise, off-screen – a best actress Oscar for the previous year's hit, Erin Brockovich. Her two most recent releases – America's Sweethearts and Ocean's 11 – featured her only in supporting roles and neither film did spectacularly well.

Even Hanks, arguably the most consistent box-office performer, had an off-year. Cast Away came out at the end of 2000, while his next venture, The Road to Perdition, was postponed because of marketing concerns in the wake of 11 September.

The films that made box-office gold, meanwhile, were notable for their lack of stars. The cast list for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the biggest blockbuster of the year, may have read like a Who's Who of fine British acting but was not anybody's idea of a star vehicle. Ditto The Fellowship of the Rings. The third undisputed box-office champ, Shrek, was a computer-generated cartoon.

So what's the big attraction of the stars? The answer appears to have less to do with audiences than it does with the real powers behind the industry – the money men. A star makes the rest of a film's budget possible, opens the way to international distribution sales and even secures a key component of any production – insurance coverage.

The Hollywood Reporter quoted Jere Hausfater, a distribution and acquisitions executive, as saying: "Unfortunately, really good material alone won't do it. To pre-sell and come up with the proper marketing hook in order to launch the picture, the actor is the critical component."

It takes a long time for newish faces to make the grade, which is why there are a lot of superannuated action stars in there. And as for minorities – Denzel Washington, anyone? – they get pushed down the list, almost certainly because of their skin colour.