“The cratering of films with big stars is astounding,” said Peter Guber, the former chairman of Sony Pictures who is now a producer and industry elder statesman. “These supertalented people are failing to aggregate a large audience, and everybody is looking for answers.”
Mr. Guber added, “Even Johnny Depp” — starring in the drama “Public Enemies” — “didn’t exactly deliver a phenomenal result.” (The A-list results may be damped partly because Will Smith, a regular summer powerhouse, had no movie open this season.)
Mr. Ferrell bombed in “Land of the Lost,” a $100 million comedy that sold only $49 million in tickets in North America. Ms. Roberts missed with “Duplicity,” a $60 million thriller that attracted $40.6 million. “Angels & Demons” (Mr. Hanks) was soft. The same for “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (Mr. Washington and Mr. Travolta).
“Imagine That,” starring Mr. Murphy, was such a disaster that Paramount Pictures had to take a write-down. Mr. Sandler? His “Funny People” limped out of the gate and then collapsed. Some of these may simply have not been very good, but an A-list star is supposed to overcome that.
The gradual trend away from big-star vehicles in the summer has been under way for years.
At the start of the decade, summer still belonged to names: Cruise (“Mission Impossible II”), Crowe (“Gladiator”) and Clooney (“The Perfect Storm”) were the top three in 2000. But the three biggest films of this summer season, a crucial period from May 1 to Labor Day that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, have been “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Up” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
The biggest names attached to those films: Shia LaBoeuf, Ed Asner and Daniel Radcliffe.
The fading ability of Hollywood stars to command box-office attention, and why that is happening, has been a perennial topic in Hollywood. And economists and academics have long argued that marquee names are not worth their expense.
“Stars and success as a corollary is largely a myth,” said S. Abraham Ravid, an economics professor at Rutgers University who has conducted several studies on movie business practices.
But some of the same well-worn reasoning for declining star power has become even truer with time: people are harder to move off the sofa; a plethora of entertainment options competes for time and attention; the Web and paparazzi culture have made it difficult for stars to stand apart as rare and unique.
“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 in an interview last month.
How is Hollywood reacting to the power brownout? Studios, struggling to cut costs after a 25 percent drop in DVD sales, aren’t giving up on top-tier stars — their presence can make a huge difference overseas and factor heavily into the sale of movies to television channels — but they are trying to pay them less or looking for less-expensive alternatives.
These battles are normally fought in strict privacy — no stars want it known that their paycheck is in retrograde, and their agent wants it known even less — but studios are starting to become bolder.
This month, a salary spat between Mr. Washington and 20th Century Fox broke into public view. Variety reported — and two executives with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed — that Fox wanted to pay the actor about $16 million to appear in “Unstoppable,” a thriller about a runaway train. Mr. Washington, who normally makes $20 million a picture, said no. Fox also sought pay cuts from producers, other actors and the director.
Several days later the studio and star came to an agreement, but it involved Mr. Washington’s giving up millions of dollars in upfront payment.
There are also some specific explanations about the recent crop of failures. Several of these stars are aging while others have allowed their fans to move on by working infrequently (Ms. Roberts). Others may be suffering by refusing to do certain types of publicity (Mr. Sandler, Mr. Murphy) or wearing their routine too thin (Mr. Ferrell).
This weekend, Mr. Pitt has an opportunity to stop the bleeding. His “Inglourious Basterds,” an R-rated Nazi thriller directed by Quentin Tarantino, arrived in theaters Friday. Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company built the marketing campaign for the film almost entirely around Mr. Pitt.
And the actor may pull it off — kind of. Mr. Weinstein contends that Mr. Pitt’s drawing power is not remotely in question. “Brad Pitt is a super-superstar at the apex of his popularity, and he’s a large part of why people want to see this movie,” he said.
Indeed, services that track consumer interest in movies predict that “Inglourious Basterds” will sell an estimated $25 million to $30 million in tickets over its three-day opening. While anything could still happen, that result would be solid for this kind of movie (extremely violent, independently made) and on par with Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, which blossomed into hits.
But a $25 million tally would fall in the middle of Mr. Pitt’s own opening-weekend track record when adjusted for inflation, on par with “The Mexican” from 2001. That would be enough to firmly keep Mr. Pitt’s wattage from dimming, but probably not enough to end the hand-wringing in Hollywood over star power, veteran producers say.
Talent agents argue that stars are not to blame, faulting script concepts that fail to translate to the screen, poor release dates, awkward marketing or ill-advised efforts by popular actors to stretch in new directions.
But many people think a new phenomenon has popped up in recent months to undercut stars. The surge in social networking services like Twitter and Facebook, not to mention text messaging, has made it much harder for studios to persuade consumers that the movies are worth their time.
“You look around the theater and can see the glow, not on people’s faces from watching the movie, but on their chins — from the BlackBerrys and iPhones,” said Mr. Guber. “They are immediately telling their friends whether it’s worth their time. And the answer to that, more often than not, seems to be no.”