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What is a movie star? New Hollywood system is breaking down definition

Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hardy on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.
Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hardy on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.The Hollywood Reporter

Call it the $10 million kiss. That's how much Kristen Stewart stands to lose if Universal decides not to go ahead with a sequel to "Snow White and the Huntsman," which has earned $389 million globally -- and the actress' now-infamous tryst with director Rupert Sanders may be a large factor.

Stewart is one of the few rising stars to have reached the $10 million mark. (At press time, Jennifer Lawrence was close to getting roughly $10 million for "The Hunger Games" follow-up, "Catching Fire"; while "Snow White's" Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth, boosted by his roles in Marvel's "Thor" and "The Avengers," also will earn $10 million if the "Snow White" sequel goes ahead.) But Stewart's precariousness at the top -- despite the global punch of the "Twilight" franchise, which brought her $25 million as well as healthy backend deals for the series' final two films -- shows how vulnerable she is, like most of those on Hollywood's new A-list.

The era is long past when a star like Tom Cruise could launch a career with "Risky Business" and "Top Gun," then stay in the stratosphere for decades. None of the new stars gets the once-standard "20-against-20" deal -- that is, $20 million upfront and 20 percent of the studio's take from exhibitors, after they make that $20 million back. Today, stars are seen as disposable, or at least interchangeable. As one top studio executive ruminates, "What major star has emerged in the past five years?"

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Aside from Channing Tatum -- who weathered a bunch of flops before scoring with "The Vow," "21 Jump Street" and "Magic Mike" -- the answer just might be none. Rather than an A-list, it might be better to think of a "hot list," in the words of one mega-agent: "That's what it is -- the guys you hope will last because nobody's shown they can do that just yet."

Asks "Twilight" producer Marty Bowen: "How many times have we anointed actors and actresses stars before they've actually become stars? People said Brandon Routh would be a superstar after "Superman Returns." Well?" (Routh is starring in one of CBS' fall sitcoms, "Partners.")

Executives, producers, lawyers and agents interviewed for this article -- many speaking off the record -- agree that Tatum, 32, stands at the pinnacle, able to command $10 million for Roland Emmerich's actioner "White House Down."

"I don't know that anyone else has kicked into that kind of gear; the 'Twilight' and 'Harry Potter' stars haven't," says producer and former Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic. "But movies make movie stars; very few actors can rise above that."

While many studios have individual preferences for actors (Warners is betting on Tom Hardy for the new "Mad Max," while Sony is happy to be in bed with "Spider-Man's" Emma Stone), every studio wants Tatum -- so much that he's booked solid for the next year.

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In some ways, Tatum defies the rules that have become de rigueur for most actors aspiring to join this quicksilver new A-list: First, make sure you have critical credibility, either through an art house hit or an Oscar nomination; then link yourself to a franchise; and finally, prove your movies can deliver in the overseas market, which now attracts 69 percent of the overall box office.

Lawrence has done all of that, getting an Oscar nomination for the tiny film that propelled her to fame, "Winter's Bone." She then boosted her standing with "X-Men: First Class" and finally defined herself as a fully fledged star in "The Hunger Games," which has earned $684 million worldwide. The $10 million or so she'll make for the sequel is 20 times the $500,000 she got paid upfront for Games-- a figure that has become a benchmark for actors taking the lead in launching most non- Marvel franchises.

Many of those are near-unknowns, like Andrew Garfield when he was signed for "The Amazing Spider-Man." Insiders say Garfield, who was best known for co-starring in "The Social Network," received the now-standard $500,000 upfront while Stone might have earned as much as $2 million. The actress has followed a similar path to Lawrence -- breaking out in 2007's "Superbad" and hitting it big with 2009's "Zombieland" and 2010's "Easy A" before landing in "The Help" and "Spider-Man."

One actress who has taken a different route while still making it to the new A-list is Jessica Chastain, who has been Oscar-nominated for "The Help" and has worked with "Terrence Malick" in The Tree of Life" but has never been in a blockbuster, nor appears to desire one; she even turned down a sci-fi epic -- "Oblivion," opposite Cruise -- and pulled out of "Iron Man 3." "Her career choices are different," says one executive. "She just doesn't seem to want to make those films."

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In fact, Chastain illustrates how A-lists -- whether new or old -- contain two distinct subcategories: those who demonstrate box-office prowess and those who attract top-tier talent. "Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis are A-listers, but they are not bankable," explains Bowen. "They are lightning rods for attracting other talent."

Although franchise gigs such as "Twilight" and "Potter" can help a star rack up hits, they also can lead to his or her decline. In the wake of "Spider-Man 3" -- and the $20 million payday ­-- Tobey Maguire hasn't had another big hit. Indeed, he dropped his fee to less than $2 million for Warner Bros.' summer 2013 release "The Great Gatsby."

All of these actors are trying to navigate an environment that has become increasingly challenging, with studios and directors in such ascendancy that stars often seem like an afterthought.

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