Forbes' Most Overrated List

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Last week, Forbes released its second-annual list of Hollywood's most overpaid movie stars.  As with most stories about Hollywood, it's a wonderfully salacious tidbit that ultimately doesn't mean a whole helluva lot.

Topping the list of the most overpaid is Nicole Kidman, who's last three films, according to Forbes, earned a mere dollar for every dollar she was paid.  Kidman is followed by Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, J-Lo, Jim Carrey, Nicholas Cage, Drew Barrymore, Will Ferrell and Cate Blanchett as the top ten "least bankable" stars.

The story goes on to say that last year, Kidman's movies earned $7 for every dollar she earned.  And Russell Crowe, who topped the overpaid list last year, is respectably placed on the best earners list this year.

The obvious conclusion  especially for Forbes' bottom-line minded readers  is that Crowe's future in the movies is bright while Kidman is on her way out. 

This conclusion is questionable, as is the premise for this list and the methods they used to come up with it. I mean, if you can go from the list of the least bankable to the list of the most bankable in twelve months, aren't we saying more about the vicissitudes of the movie business and the fickleness of film goers than the value of a star?

I wonder how it is that Forbes even knows these numbers when accountants for the stars themselves are constantly suing the studios to force them to divulge the same information?

But even if the data is correct, the list assumes that stars are completely responsible for the success or failure of a movie.  If the film is ill conceived, ill executed or badly marketed, no star power can save them.

And stars often demand more to star in movies they aren't that excited about, while they're willing to slash or defer salaries for projects for which they feel some passion.  You can guess which as a ratio or salary to gross is likely to do better.

The list also punishes stars for taking roles that are risky and choosing movies that aren't main-stream enough.  I think Will Farrell did a fantastic job in Stranger than Fiction, and I really enjoyed the film, but it was ultimately too far out for the general audience.

I also think it's a bit unfair that the list also doesn't take into account animated movies, which means that Cameron Diaz gets no credit for the $1.7 billion earned by the three Shrek movies to date.

Look, I resent being put in the position of defending spoiled superstars who make about a bajillion times what I do.  And yes, we all think teachers should be making much more than they do.  But what does it mean to be overpaid, when stars make only what the market will bear and what their value proves out over time?  I will bet you that if you figured the lifetime figures for most of the stars on the list  and you included merchandise and other ancillary income  you would find that all of them return a pretty good bang for their buck.

Perhaps Forbes would do best keeping an eye on CEO compensation.  After all, I think it's a lot easier to justify stars bloated salaries than the amounts pulled down by corporate chiefs. And when a star makes a real stinker, all we've lost is $15 and two hours of our time.  But when Jeffrey Skilling or Dennis Kozlowski destroys a company, he takes the livelihood of his employees and millions from investors.
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Matt Holzman