Sunday, January 01, 2006

REV: Rising/Falling Stars

Maybe the Stars Have Gotten Small After All
By SHARON WAXMAN, LOS ANGELES, The New York Times, January 1, 2006

IT was months before the cameras were set to roll on one of 20th Century Fox's most ambitious projects for 2005, a $140 million historic epic about the Crusades by the director Ridley Scott. And still there was no one to play the leading role of Balian.

Mr. Scott had at first envisioned Russell Crowe, the scowling, muscled star of his "Gladiator" hit, to play the role of a blacksmith and reluctant Crusader in the Holy Land. But Mr. Crowe had other projects on his slate, and would not alter them to fit the director's timetable.

It took four more months of searching by casting agents and Mr. Scott to settle on Orlando Bloom, the long-haired, doe-eyed young British actor who was high on Hollywood's list of hot new stars in the making. Mr. Bloom, who had won a fan base of teenage girls with his performance in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and who was fresh off the set of another historical epic, Warner Brothers' "Troy," was the favored choice of Fox executives.

But as it turned out, "Troy" did not catch fire with the audience (not even the teenage girls), or with critics. And Mr. Bloom's next major outing, in Mr. Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," was a bust, taking in just $211 million in ticket sales around the world, hardly enough to justify its production and marketing costs.

Next came the lead in Cameron Crowe's comic romance, "Elizabethtown," which pancaked at the box office when Paramount released it in the fall, and exposed Mr. Bloom to a withering verdict by movie critics. Just a month later, moreover, the 28-year-old actor was sued by his former management company, the Firm, for breach of contract and failure to pay management fees, over the defection of his manager to another firm.

By the end of 2005, what just a year earlier had looked like the start of an upward climb toward Hollywood stardom began instead to read like a cautionary tale about the difficulty of minting movie superstars from the ranks of a 20-something generation.

Stardom came easier to the young only a decade or two ago. At 23, Tom Cruise grasped it with the release of "Top Gun" in 1986, and flaunted it two years later by turning a vehicle as slight as "Cocktail" into a major hit. Julia Roberts was a superstar at 22, after the success of "Pretty Woman" in 1990, and Leonardo DiCaprio was just 23 when "Titanic" turned him into an international screen presence in 1997.

All quickly rose into Hollywood's top salary tier - the ranks of the $20 million actor, or thereabouts - and achieved bankable status with nervous executives who were willing to make a costly film because these actors were in it.

That kind of glitter has remained out of reach for Mr. Bloom's generation, notwithstanding a new crop of talent in the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, 25, who was featured in this past season's "Jarhead" and "Brokeback Mountain," or Heath Ledger, who co-starred in "Brokeback" and headlined in the just-released "Casanova."

YET none of them have proven their box-office clout with anything close to the certainty of their recent predecessors. And the calculus of the $20 million Hollywood equation has eluded them, as they have so far proved incapable of drawing the kinds of audiences that can justify the rising costs of producing and marketing movies. (One exception may be Daniel Radcliffe, the 16-year-old who recently signed on to star in the fifth "Harry Potter" film for a reported $14.4 million, but he has yet to test his drawing power outside that franchise.)

"The comfort level of hiring a star isn't what it used to be," said Jim Gianopulos, Fox's co-chairman. "I think people have recognized that there's a folly in allowing yourself to fall prey to the expectation that talent will always recover its value in the kinds of numbers we're playing with."

If new stars are born more rarely, it is partly because American audiences have been turning their backs on star-driven pictures. Of last year's top dozen box-office events, only three - "Hitch," with Will Smith; "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; and "Wedding Crashers," with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson - relied more on celebrities than computer wizardry to achieve their success. And several expensive movies with proven stars fell flat, among them "Bewitched" with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, and "Cinderella Man" with Russell Crowe.

"There's a shrinking number of dramatic stars who can guarantee an opening-weekend audience," said Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios and a former agent for A-list talent including Mr. Cruise and Tom Hanks. "They must be in the right vehicle at the right time."

So, what is the state of Hollywood stardom? Mr. Bloom's recent career experiences show that it is more difficult to achieve than it once was.

Agents and managers and a publicist for Mr. Bloom declined to discuss for the record his recent choices and the growing wariness toward stars on the part of audiences and film executives.

Mr. Bloom wrote in an e-mail message that he was focused on his craft, rather than on achieving stardom. (He declined to be interviewed further). "I am proud of my two films that came out this year, 'Kingdom of Heaven' and 'Elizabethtown,' " he wrote. "I learned so much from both Ridley Scott and Cameron Crowe, and view both experiences as the opportunities of a lifetime."

Still, court documents and interviews with colleagues provide a telling glimpse of a young actor in an era that has a new, more austere take on Hollywood stardom.

Born in Canterbury, England, in 1977, Mr. Bloom came to show business with an unconventional background. His father, Harry Bloom, was a famed political activist who fought for civil rights in South Africa and died when Orlando was 4. The boy was brought up, along with his older sister, by his mother, Sonia, and a family friend, Colin Stone. But when Orlando was a young teenager, his mother revealed that Mr. Stone was actually his biological father.

Suffering from dyslexia as a student, Mr. Bloom was drawn to the arts and poetry in school in the English county of Kent. At 16 he moved to London and joined the National Youth Theater, where he had a scholarship to train in a drama academy. He won a few television roles and had a small role in a 1997 movie about Oscar Wilde titled "Wilde."

Mr. Bloom went on to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where his first big break occurred during a student performance one night in 1998. The director Peter Jackson happened to be in the audience, and he came backstage to ask Mr. Bloom to audition for a set of movies he was preparing based on the J. R. R. Tolkien trilogy, "Lord of the Rings."

The fledgling actor's career quickly took hold as he gathered the accoutrements of Hollywood's star-making machinery. He was signed by International Creative Management in London, where he worked with Fiona McLoughlin, and in Beverly Hills, with Chris Andrews, both agents for young actors.

He made his Hollywood debut at 24 as the dashing Elvish archer Legolas Greenleaf in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," in December 2001. Mr. Bloom became an instant teenage idol - in 2002 he was chosen one of Teen People's "25 Hottest Stars Under 25" - and his following grew through the two Tolkien sequels.

In time-honored fashion, Mr. Bloom's entourage grew as well. He hired a manager, Aleen Keshishian, whose management company, the Firm, had just acquired the apparatus and ambitions of the faltering Hollywood powerbroker Michael Ovitz. He also hired a publicist, Robin Baum, from the high-profile company PMK/HBH.

Led by its chairman, Jeff Kwatinetz, the Firm had eyes for creating big stars and was busy building up the careers of performers like Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube and Cameron Diaz. Mr. Kwatinetz saw Mr. Bloom as a prime candidate to grow into a $20 million player, especially when Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," in which Mr. Bloom played a supporting role with Johnny Depp, became a surprise hit.

When the role of Paris in "Troy" came along, Mr. Kwatinetz clashed with Ms. Keshishian. He felt that the role presented too weak an image for an actor aspiring to the position of virile leading man. Ms. Keshishian felt differently. Mr. Bloom was slowly building a career, she believed, and a prominent part in a major international epic was a smart move.

Ms. Keshishian prevailed. But the dynamics of the star game were already changing. One star vehicle after another was coming up short at the box office - "Troy" with Brad Pitt," "The Terminal" with Tom Hanks, "The Manchurian Candidate" with Denzel Washington, "The Stepford Wives" with Nicole Kidman - and Hollywood was beginning to edge away from its commitment to high-cost talent.

This shift seemed at first to work in Mr. Bloom's favor. When Russell Crowe, a $20 million actor, bowed out of "Kingdom of Heaven," Mr. Bloom was briefly perceived as a bargain: an actor with a huge fan base among teenage girls, and one who would take a cut in his fee in exchange for the opportunity to have a leading role and work with Mr. Scott. He was paid just $2 million.

But when it opened in May, "Kingdom of Heaven" had disastrous ticket sales of just $47 million in the United States. While it did considerably better abroad, the film seemed to prove that Mr. Bloom was not ready to deliver a mass audience, at least not outside the framework of his earlier fantasy films.

The downward slide continued in another failed test of Mr. Bloom's drawing power, this time in a romantic comedy. Cameron Crowe, the acclaimed writer-director of "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," had run into casting troubles with "Elizabethtown," about a young, successful sneaker designer who undergoes an identity crisis when his father dies. Mr. Crowe originally cast the 25-year-old television star Ashton Kutcher in the lead. But as the director said in a recent interview, he "didn't feel the movie coming together" during two months of work on location in Kentucky. The two parted ways, and Mr. Crowe looked for a replacement.

He thought of Mr. Bloom, whom he had met three years before when Mr. Crowe wrote and directed a commercial for the Gap in which Mr. Bloom and Kate Beckinsale were chased down the street by fans.

"I needed the same thing from both those actors," said Mr. Crowe, referring to Mr. Kutcher and Mr. Bloom, explaining why he chose a dramatic actor for a comic role. "It was an interior, whimsical thing. It was Bud Cort in 'Harold and Maude.' Ultimately Orlando got me closer."

The studio resisted. Sherry Lansing, then chairwoman of Paramount, wanted Owen Wilson. But Cameron Crowe got his choice, and Mr. Bloom was paid $3 million, which his representatives described as another finnancial compromise made for the chance to work with the director.

Cost, it turned out, was the least of the problems with "Elizabethtown." The film was made for about $70 million, but has taken in just $50 million in ticket sales, making it a calamity for the filmmaker, the studio and, most of all, the star, who was perceived by more than a few critics as having gotten in over his head. (In The New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote, "Mr. Bloom distinguishes himself, in this performance as in most of his others, by his steadfast reluctance to explore his range as an actor.")

"You can't blame the actor," Mr. Crowe now says of the movie's failure. "It's not math. It's like catching lightning in a bottle."

And he said that he still believed in the possibility of Mr. Bloom's success: "Stars arrive on their own timetable."

That may be true; just a few years ago Mr. Ledger was written off after the double disasters of "The Four Feathers" and "A Knight's Tale." But that timetable is often of Hollywood's own making, as the inner machinery of the entertainment industry - the agents, managers, lawyers, publicists and movie executives - continually seek the stuff of which stardom is made, and on which their livelihoods depend.

As for Mr. Bloom, he is in the Caribbean, trying to recover his footing with roles in back-to-back sequels to "Pirates of the Caribbean," alongside Mr. Depp. At least in this case, Mr. Bloom has seen his salary rise nicely; he is being paid $11.9 million for the pair of movies.

But Hollywood is most likely already on the march, hunting for its next new naif. The other day Mr. Cameron Crowe heard from a screenwriter friend whose new script calls for a leading man of 25. "He called me and said, 'I'd love to pick your brain,' " Mr. Crowe recalled. "And I said, 'You better get an ax and start working the hard road, my friend. You've got a long journey ahead.' "