LOS ANGELES - R.I.P., movie stars.
You remember them. People like Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Nicolas Cage - actors who could open a movie by slapping their gleaming mugs on a poster.
No more. Once the safeguard of Hollywood's most profitable movies, A-list celebrities are finding their stock fading at the multiplex, where concept is trumping co-stars and story may actually matter.
Consider: Knight & Day, the $117 million adventure with Cruise and Diaz, was to be a summer titan. Instead, the film opened in third place with $20 million. Cage's Sorcerer's Apprentice could use some magic. Roberts couldn't save the fate of Duplicity, and even Matt Damon, when essentially reprising his role as Jason Bourne, couldn't lift the $100 million Green Zone above $36 million.
Among the top 10 movies of the year, only Johnny Depp's Alice in Wonderland and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man 2 could arguably claim big revenues from star power.
What gives? Television and tabloids have made stars an everyday sight, and it could be that cash-strapped moviegoers need something more than a familiar face to fork over $15.
The brain-teasing thriller Inception, for instance, has succeeded despite essentially removing Leonardo DiCaprio from the poster.
"Leo's name is in very small font, and it's clear they're selling the concept and filmmaker (Christopher Nolan)," says Jeff Bock, analyst for the industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "They sold that on concept."
A risky concept. Dan Fellman of Warner Bros. says competing studio executives tried to scare him off opening a brainy film in the summer.
"The timing seemed right," Fellman says. "People want a movie to go to Starbucks afterward and talk about. I thought they'd want to do that as much in summer as in fall, and we knocked it out of the park."
A-listers can point to the rise of comic-book movies as a harbinger of trouble. Despite having five different stars in the cape, from Michael Keaton to George Clooney to Christian Bale, every big-studio Batman movie has opened at No. 1. "Batman showed that you could put almost any star behind the mask and they'd work," Bock says. "That will knock a few million off your salary."
Access Hollywood critic Scott Mantz says that while the trend worries Hollywood's richest talent, it's good for the movies.
"Look at Star Trek, look at The Hangover," he says of two relatively starless hits last year. "People don't need to recognize the face. They need to connect to the story."