In today's recessionary Hollywood, studio executives are no longer looking to cast actors who will demand upward of $15 million just to appear in a movie and then a hefty portion of the film's revenue. Instead, the ideal package is a big concept with low-paid stars.
“Transformers” is the ultimate example. The 2007 film featured actors Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, but the real stars were the massive computer-generated robots that turned into cars. LaBeouf and Fox have their charms, but they're also cheap to hire. DreamWorks didn't have to pay through the nose for LaBeouf and Fox as they would have for actors like Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore.
Thanks to “Transformers” (and the most recent Indiana Jones movie) LaBeouf, 23, lands at the top of our latest return on investment list. The young actor was lucky enough to catch the eye of Steven Spielberg who has cast him in many of DreamWorks' most lucrative movies. Because of his inexperience and (until recently) unproven ability to draw in audiences, LaBeouf earned relatively small salaries in films that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, for every dollar he was paid, LaBeouf's movies returned an average $160 for the studio.
In order to create our list, we looked at the 100 biggest stars in Hollywood. To qualify, each actor had to have starred in at least three movies in the past five years that opened in more than 500 theaters. We did not include animated films because the actors aren't really the draw (pun intended), and they tend to take pay cuts for voice work.
For past lists we have required that actors earn at least $5 million per movie, but we decided to waive that this time around. Studios consider these lower-paid actors key to making money these days and even higher-paid actors are sometimes taking smaller salaries. On “Yes Man,” for instance, Jim Carrey worked for nothing upfront in exchange for a large share of the film's profits.
We calculated each star's estimated earnings on each film (including upfront pay and any earnings from the film's box-office receipts, DVD and TV sales). We then looked at each movie's estimated budget (not including marketing costs, which are susceptible to accounting chicanery) and box office, DVD and television earnings to figure out an operating income for each film.
We added up each star's compensation on his last three films and the operating income on those films and divided total operating income by the star's total compensation to come up with each return on investment number. For the sake of this particular version of our list, we are only looking at the men. We'll have an actress list in a few weeks.
LaBeouf's numbers don't include “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which came out June 24 of this year. In order for a movie to qualify, it had to have been released before June 20 to ensure two months of box-office earnings before we finalized our numbers.
Coming in second behind LaBeouf is 30-year-old Scottish actor James McAvoy. Until recently McAvoy was best known for his work in the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland” where he starred opposite Forrest Whitaker who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
But last year McAvoy was lucky enough to appear in “Wanted” with Angelina Jolie. The modest-budget action flick earned $342 million at the box office and catapulted McAvoy into the realm of Hollywood's hottest. His small salary on the film meant he was able to offer a huge return to Universal on its investment. Expect his payday to jump for a proposed sequel.
Superheroes do well on our list. Because it usually doesn't matter who is behind the mask (Christian Bale is a popular Batman, but so was Michael Keaton in his day) studios can offer lead actors small paydays. The trade-off for the actor is if the movie hits, like “Iron Man,” that star will be in a position to demand a much larger payday next time around.
Batman (Bale) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) both make our list. For every dollar Bale was paid his last three films, including “The Dark Knight,” the studio grossed an average $55, ranking him eighth on our list. Since “The Dark Knight” was a sequel to “Batman Begins,” Bale was able to negotiate his salary up but not nearly as much as he will be able to do on a proposed third film, since Dark Knight earned $1 billion at the worldwide box office.
Downey, who until recently was considered such a risky choice that studios were able to pay him a Hollywood pittance, does even better than Bale, placing fifth on our list with a $78 return for every dollar he earned.
Young actors also tended to do well on our list. Because they are still proving themselves, they have yet to earn the $10 million paychecks of some of their older co-stars. So 21-year-old Michael Cera ranks third on our list. He has appeared in a number of super low-budget movies that performed well at the box office including “Superbad,” which earned $170 million at the worldwide box office on an estimated budget of $20 million. His most recent film, “Year One,” was a flop earning only $53 million despite an estimated $60 million budget. But with his low paydays Cera still comes out near the top of our list.
Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe, 20, is the youngest man in the top 10. He earns much more for his work in the Warner Bros films than some of his fellow actors, but the Harry Potter movies make such spectacular gobs of money that his salary turns out to be a good return on investment. For every dollar Warner pays Radcliffe, his films earn $93.