U.S. News

You Can't Take Oscar To The Bank

By Annalisa Burgos

Hollywood has two types of movie stars –- those that win Oscars and those that bring in the big box office money.

You can’t be both -- unless you’re Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington.

Only three of the 20 actors up for top honors at the 79th annual Academy Awards Sunday -- Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Eddie Murphy (all of whom have yet to win an Oscar) are among the highest paid in Hollywood, meaning they command at least $20 million per movie and in some cases, a cut of the film's profits. Even two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep averages a mere $10 million a movie.

Today’s highest paid actors have never won an Oscar. Tom Cruise, arguably the most bankable star, commands a whopping $25 million per movie plus a percentage of gross box office receipts. But the star, now released from his deal with Paramount Studios, has yet to hold the golden statuette, though he has been nominated three times. Then again, analysts say, who needs an Oscar when your movies are guaranteed to bring in at least $100 million at the box office.

Superhero and action blockbusters are what bring in the majority of money in Hollywood, so script choice determines whether you’re banking on an Oscar or the box office, says Jeff Bock, an analyst for box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

“For actors, I think you’re in it for the wrong reason if all you want is an award,” Bock says. “Besides, there are so many awards out there that you’re going to have something on your mantle. You won’t be empty handed.”

Fellow box office heavyweights Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt likewise have delivered Oscar-worthy performances, but have not taken the statue home. But they do take home some $20 million (and in some cases, a percentage of gross) for a movie. And while comedies don’t usually win Oscars, they do make actors like Will Farrell and Jim Carrey very rich. Farrell recently turned down $29 million to make "Elf 2," a sequel to his 2003 Christmas hit. Chris Tucker is getting $25 million plus gross for "Rush Hour 3" due out this summer.

The only exceptions are Hanks, who has won two Oscars for his roles in  "Philadelphia"  and  "Forrest Gump," and Washington -- who also nabbed two awards, for "Glory" and "Training Day". Hanks earned $18 million plus gross from "The Da Vinci Code," which raked in more than $217 million and was the no. 5 top grossing film in 2006.

“There are actors who can cross over, but it’s rare,” Bock said.

Making Movies, Making Money

While a male star's “bankability” remains unaffected by the lack of an Oscar win, the opposite is true for his female counterpart. The golden statuette has helped boost the star power of more than half of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Julia Roberts’ Oscar for "Erin Brockovich" in 2001 propelled her to the top spot, with a $20 million asking price. Nicole Kidman’s earning power also got a boost after her 2003 win for "The Hours." She now earns some $16 million to $17 million per movie. Likewise, screen sirens Renee Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie have all seen fatter paychecks around the $15 million mark, thanks to Oscar.

But not all actresses need the help of the little gold man. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston are all huge box office draws. And the Spider-Man franchise helped push Kirsten Dunst onto the A-list, after teen roles in "Bring It On" and "Get Over It."

Interestingly though, actors who win Oscars seldom go on to make blockbuster movies and it is not uncommon for them to fall from glory. Some call it the Oscar curse, plaguing such actors as Cuba Gooding, Jr, Marisa Tomei and Gwyneth Paltrow.

It boils down to where the actor’s career is, what kind of scripts the actor gets and the choices he or she makes, analysts say.

“Many of them haven’t had a long career yet. They win an Oscar and achieve A-list status. They might not be ready for that,” said Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “If you’ve been getting B-list, C-list scripts, then you suddenly get inundated with A-list scripts, it can be pretty hectic.”

“Some actors suddenly think they’re invincible,” said Terrence Davison, director in the Entertainment, Media and Communications Advisory Practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tabulates the Oscar votes. “It can go to your head and you make bad decisions.”

That seems to be the case for Paltrow, who may have peaked after winning an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999. Subsequent movies "Duets", "Shallow Hal" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" flopped at the box office.

Likewise, casting an Oscar winner in a movie does not a box office hit make. Just look at Halle Berry's "Catwoman" and Hillary Swank's "Black Dahlia."

If this summer is any indication of where the industry is putting its money, franchises are worth much more than Oscar gold.