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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Unstoppable': Hollywood's movie-star movies keep biting the dust

June 30, 2009 |  1:12 pm

Denzelwashington

As the Hollywood Reporter reports today, 20th Century Fox has put the brakes on "Unstoppable," the studio's Denzel Washington and Chris Pine-starring thriller that was supposed to start production this fall. The reason: Fox is worried about the film's costs. This may simply be Fox's way of pressuring the stars -- and filmmaker Tony Scott -- into making budgetary concessions. But it hit a big nerve in the talent community, coming after the quick hook Sony Pictures gave "Moneyball" last week, despite the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead role.

What's going on? As my colleague Claudia Eller has astutely pointed out, this summer has been something of a bloodbath for movie-star-driven films. The summer's biggest duds have been films that were carried -- make that supposed to be carried -- by movie stars. Despite the presence of Will Ferrell, "Land of the Lost" is a huge flop, perhaps the year's biggest money-loser. Eddie Murphy was the drawing card for "Imagine That," which bombed at the box office. The presence of Washington and John Travolta did nothing to steer moviegoers into seeing "The Taking of Pelham 123," which surely has played a role in Fox's concerns over bankrolling another Washington-starring thriller.

The lesson? You don't really need movie stars to play in the summer movie sandbox. The summer is becoming a magnet for high-concept comedies ("The Hangover") special-effects extravaganzas ("Star Trek" and "Transformers") and well-crafted computer animation ("Up") that work just fine without any help from expensive star talent.

I suspect this is simply the beginning of a new trend that will only put a bigger squeeze on high-cost talent, who have already been in the process of retooling their back-end money deals as studios have become increasingly wary of doling out millions to stars before they break even on their investments. But here's the real interesting question: What are the movie-star projects due out in the second half of the year that are the biggest commercial question marks? 

Here's a list of the films that could prompt anxious studio executives to pop fistfuls of Prozac over the next six months. Keep reading:

"Funny People" (starring Adam Sandler): Judging from the early screening reaction, it's not at all clear that Sandler, who plays a comic who thinks he's dying, is actually funny or not. (Universal, July 31)

"The Informant" (starring Matt Damon): How riveting can a comedy-thriller be about price fixing in the world of agri-business? (Warner Bros., Sept. 18)

"Surrogates" (starring Bruce Willis): Futuristic thrillers are a tricky proposition, especially with an aging action star like WIllis, who's had more flops than hits in recent years. (Disney, Sept. 25)

"Shutter Island" (starring Leonardo DiCaprio): Does Leonardo's $20-million-plus price tag really add value to a genre thriller set in a spooky nuthouse? (Paramount, Oct. 2)

"The Box" (starring Cameron Diaz): It's one thing to ask Diaz to do fizzy comedy, but does she have the heft to carry a weighty drama about a young couple's moral conundrum? (Warner Bros., Oct. 30)

"Untitled Nancy Meyers Comedy" (starring Meryl Streep and Steve Martin): Will moviegoers flock to see two sixtysomething stars in what rival studios are calling the world's most expensive romantic comedy? (Universal, Dec. 25)

"Sherlock Holmes" (starring Robert Downey Jr.): He was great as the oddball hero of "Iron Man," but can Downey breathe new life into a period piece involving the world's oldest detective character? (Warner Bros.,Dec. 25)

Photo: Denzel Washington in "The Taking of Pelham 123." Credit: Rico Torres / Columbia Pictures.

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