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Movie stars are not an endangered species. Nor are they the key to a successful movie like most blue suited penguins (i.e. studio executives and producers) think.

You see, the blue suited penguins believe that movie stars are essential to a film’s success. That’s why they’re willing to show the money and pay the big bucks for stars. The blue suited penguins believe that these stars can generate an enormous amount of free publicity and help to open a motion picture regardless of its quality.

The problem with this line of thinking is that movie stars do not guarantee a movie doing well on its opening weekend. They can be a factor if cast in the right role in the right story, but they can just as easily make flops as any other actors. Case in point, take Charlie Wilson’s War. Here’s a movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, arguably two of the biggest stars in the past fifteen years.

Charlie Wilson's War

Yet the movie opened to a less than stellar $9.6 million dollars and came in 4th place behind National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets, I Am Legend and Alvin and the Chipmunks. That’s right. The surefire pairing of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars loses to a movie starring Jason Lee and a trio of animated chipmunks.

Alvin and the Chipmunks

Want another example? Take Lions For Lambs. Here’s a movie starring Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. There’s no denying the star power involved on this film. First you have Tom Cruise who is one of the highest grossing actors ever. Then you add ’70s matinee idol Robert Redford and The Devil Wears Prada star Meryl Streep, who also happens to be one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, and you should have a pure box office bonanza, right?

Lions For Lambs

Perhaps not. Even with all the star power involved on this movie, Lions For Lambs could only open at number 4 at the weekend box office losing out to Bee Movie, American Gangster and Fred Claus. All the movie stars in the world couldn’t help that movie.

People will not go see a movie just for the stars anymore. I’m not sure they ever did. It was always dependent on both the story and the type of movie. Put Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and you have a hit. Put him in Rhinestone and you’ll have a flop on your hands. Cast Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and you’ll be raking in the money. Cast him as a Russian submarine captain in K-19: The Widowmaker and you’ll have both an embarrassment and an expensive box office failure.

But what about the blue suited penguins’s notion that casting stars gets you tons of free publicity that you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten? Just keep in mind that nothing is free. You had to pay for the damn movie star, didn’t you? Sure you might get a lot of chances to promote your film with magazine covers and appearances on Leno or Letterman or Craig Ferguson, but you could have bought just as much exposure if not more with the money you used to pay for your movie star. Think about it. Did all the free publicity that came with casting Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart equal the amount of advertising or press you could have bought with her $10 million salary? I think the answer you’ll find is no.

Does that mean that movie stars are useless? After all, what good are movie stars if they can’t guarantee a movie’s opening and the free publicity you get is less than what their salaries would have bought? The answer is no. Movie stars have their place and use. From a financial standpoint, movie stars help to drive the DVD sales and rental markets. A person is more likely to rent or buy the DVD of a movie starring Jet Li even if they never saw the film in its original theatrical release than they are to rent or buy a straight to video film starring someone they’ve never heard of. That’s why faded and fat former action stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme still have healthy careers making straight to video movies. People are more likely to see one of these clunkers starring someone they know over a movie they’ve never heard of starring someone unknown.

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