Will Ferrell tops list of 'over-rated' film stars

As revenues slump, big names struggle to justify million-dollar paypackets

He can make people laugh. But is Will Ferrell worth it? If you're a Hollywood film studio, the answer is almost certainly "no". Why else should the comic actor suffer the indignity of being named and shamed as 2009's most "overpaid" major film star?

Ferrell, who earns a reported $20m (£12.5m) per movie, yesterday beat stiff opposition from Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy to top Forbes Magazine's annual league of the ten performers who fall most short of justifying their exorbitant salaries.

He owes the unfortunate accolade to this summer's flop, Land of the Lost, which cost an estimated $100m to make but returned $65m at the box office, combined with poor DVD sales for 2008's Semi Pro, which had disappointed with $43m in cinemas.

Using a formula that compares salaries with the combined recent revenues of movies, Forbes calculated that Ferrell's films returned just $3.23 for every dollar that studios spent hiring him. And that's before major costs like production, marketing, and distribution were taken into account.

The film industry's second-poorest investment was the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, whose salary is not in Ferrell's league, but who has recently fronted a string of flops. His newest project, Amelia, a biopic of Amelia Earhart, cost an estimated $40m, but garnered poor reviews and has so far made back just $13.3m.

McGregor's films are said to generate $3.75 for every dollar he's paid. Billy Bob Thornton ($4) is third in the Forbes league, while Eddie Murphy ($4.43) is fourth, thanks to the disastrous showing of his last two films Imagine That and Meet Dave.

Tom Cruise ($7.18), Leonardo DiCaprio ($7.52) and Jim Carrey ($8.62) also appear in the top ten. In a sea change from last year (when Nicole Kidman was at number one, and seven on the list were female) just one woman, Drew Barrymore ($7.43), features anywhere in the 2009 rundown.

All snapshots of an actor's career should of course be taken with a small pinch of salt, and the Forbes list is based on estimated, rather than actual salaries. But it does highlight the enduringly bizarre nature of Hollywood economics.

To turn a profit, once marketing and distribution costs are taken into account, a film's total global revenues should generally total close to twice its overall budget. But declining DVD sales have in recent years made that benchmark far tougher to achieve, and major stars are now facing severe downward pressure on pay demands.

Studios are also more inclined to spend serious cash backing "concept" films like Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Transformers, rather than so-called "star vehicles". One of 2009's biggest commercial hits was The Hangover which boasted a B-list rather than A-list ensemble cast. Meanwhile the most expensive gamble of the coming months will be James Cameron's Avatar, which has devoted the lion's share of its reported $300m budget not to stars but to state-of-the-art special effects.