Hollywood executives are scratching their heads and re-evaluating their biggest stars after dismal box-office returns from a series of summer flicks that have failed to deliver.
The traditional formula of films starring A-listers that can be relied on to fill cinemas and suck in profits has not worked this year, causing executives to re-assess the worth of big-name features.
Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell are among the stars whose films did not attract the audiences expected. Even the dependable Johnny Depp in Public Enemies did not deliver the phenomenal result its makers had hoped for.
Those stars could normally expect to command pay packets of £15m per film. But the pay deals are likely to be trimmed significantly after a disappointing season that is normally regarded as the most profitable part of the cinema calendar.
Peter Guber, a former chairman of Sony Pictures, said, "These super-talented people are failing to aggregate a large audience, and everybody is looking for answers." Farrell's Land of the Lost cost £60m to produce but made only £30m in sales in the US. Duplicity, a thriller starring Roberts, cost £36m and made £25m.
Experts say the move away from big-star vehicles has been under way for years. The three biggest films in America so far this year have been Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Up and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, this film has grossed more than £500m so far.
The decline in the attraction of some actors has been blamed in part on the rise in home entertainment options and the inability of stars to stand out from the crowd. And the increase in the use of social networking websites via mobile telephones during screenings is said to have played a role.
Unflattering comments posted on Twitter are being blamed in part for disappointing returns. "You look around the [cinema] and can see the glow, not on people's faces from watching the movie, but on their chins – from the BlackBerries and iPhones," Mr Guber said.
Several of the stars who have performed in unsuccessful films this year have worked too infrequently to hang on to their fans. Others, like Ferrell, are said tobe wearing their routine too thin. "Stars will always be important but the industry is definitely seeing a transformation in their ability to open movies," Marc Shmuger, the chairman of Universal Pictures, said last month.
Studios are unlikely to give up on their stars, but they are beginning to cut costs by reducing leading actors' multimillion-dollar pay packets in a series of public bargaining spats.
There is still one film that the money men are banking on. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, is expected to do well in the US, despite some unflattering reviews and question marks over the director's ability to reproduce another hit as spectacular as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bill trilogy.
Services that track consumer interest in films predict it will sell between £15m to £20m over its three-day opening, this weekend. Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company built the film's marketing entirely around Pitt, said his pulling power was not in question. "Brad Pitt is a super-superstar at the apex of his popularity and he is a large part of why people want to see this movie," he said.