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Is the A-list dead? We keep reading about how Hollywood no longer needs nor can afford world-famous movie stars, how the new economics of filmmaking and the waning appeal of once-bankable actors means that the days of the $20 million salary are over. And that seems to be true - until the next $20 million deal comes along.

This past weekend saw both another obituary for the Hollywood star system (in the UK Telegraph) and a deal worth at least $20 million for Sacha Baron Cohen. Clearly, someone in Hollywood (in this case, Paramount), is still willing to pony up the big bucks, at least for the right star in the right project.

According to Deadline New York, the Baron Cohen deal, which he shopped around to all the studios last week, is for a movie in which he'll play a dual role, a goat herder and an ousted foreign dictator who gets lost in America. The plot is described as 'Coming to America' meets 'Trading Places.' (Or for those whose memories stretch back a bit further, a gloss on Mark Twain's 'The Prince and the Pauper.') The deal is reportedly worth $20 million up front to the 'Borat' star, against 20 percent of the first-dollar gross, meaning he also gets a back-end of 20 percent of whatever the movie makes in theaters. By Deadline's estimate, the movie could earn him up to $80 million. Is the A-list dead? We keep reading about how Hollywood no longer needs nor can afford world-famous movie stars, how the new economics of filmmaking and the waning appeal of once-bankable actors means that the days of the $20 million salary are over. And that seems to be true -- until the next $20 million deal comes along.

This past weekend saw both another obituary for the Hollywood star system (in the UK Telegraph) and a deal worth at least $20 million for Sacha Baron Cohen. Clearly, someone in Hollywood (in this case, Paramount), is still willing to pony up the big bucks, at least for the right star in the right project.

According to Deadline New York, the Baron Cohen deal, which he shopped around to all the studios last week, is for a movie in which he'll play a dual role, a goat herder and an ousted foreign dictator who gets lost in America. The plot is described as 'Coming to America' meets 'Trading Places.' (Or for those whose memories stretch back a bit further, a gloss on Mark Twain's 'The Prince and the Pauper.') The deal is reportedly worth $20 million up front to the 'Borat' star, against 20 percent of the first-dollar gross, meaning he also gets a back-end of 20 percent of whatever the movie makes in theaters. By Deadline's estimate, the movie could earn him up to $80 million.

Such deals used to be commonplace 10 years ago, when such stars as Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Denzel Washington used to get eight-figure paychecks up front and big chunks of the back-end profits as well. Not anymore.

These days, most of those names (except maybe the curiously ageless Washington) have ceased being bankable stars, in the sense of being automatically worth $20 million upfront because they're guaranteed to earn that back at the box office on the opening weekend on their way to a $100 million gross. In part, it's because these stars have aged well out of the target demographic of under-25-year-olds to which most Hollywood movies are pitched, and because the kind of movies Hollywood specializes in now are no longer star-driven.

What sells a movie now is not a star's picture on the poster, but the concept itself -- a familiar superhero title, a remake of a well-known movie, an adaptation of a familiar TV show, a franchise based on a series of best-selling novels, an easy-to-describe horror premise, a special effects extravaganza or a family-friendly work of animation. Not only do such movies succeed without big stars (indeed, 'Avatar' seems to have frightened all actors, not just A-listers, into wondering if they're now superfluous), but they'd be impossible with them, at least if their producers had to pay for both CGI and for old-fashioned star salaries.

At least, that's the conventional wisdom, as expressed in the Telegraph article. But the Baron Cohen deal suggests that the right star, coupled with the right idea, could be worth every penny. In this case, the idea was a fully-developed script by Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel (all veterans of 'Seinfeld' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'), scenes from which Baron Cohen reportedly acted out while pitching to executives. Certainly, no one does immigrant fish-out-of-water stories as well as the star of 'Borat' and 'Bruno.' (Yes, 'Bruno' is widely considered a flop, but as the Wrap points out, it grossed about $140 million worldwide on a $42 million production budget.) Certainly, it's hard to imagine any of Baron Cohen's fellow comedy all-stars -- Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell -- doing as well with the same goatherd script.

Indeed, those other comics also seem to be immune from the death-of-stardom laments, as long as they're operating in their comfort zone. Sandler is golden as long as he's playing one of his angry man-child characters and not going for serious drama ('Spanglish,' 'Funny People'). Ferrell is a smash as long as he's creating original characters (Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby) and not shoehorning himself into remakes ('The Producers,' 'Bewitched,' 'Land of the Lost'). Stiller is a success when lampooning vapid celebrities ('Zoolander,' 'Tropic Thunder') or playing nebbishes subjected to cosmic levels of humiliation ('There's Something About Mary,' 'Along Came Polly,' the 'Night at the Museum' franchise).

There are lots of other provisional A-listers these days. Matt Damon is an A-lister as long as he's in a movie with 'Bourne' in the title. Jennifer Aniston does well as long as she doesn't stray from a narrow path of romantic comedy or supportive wife roles. Tom Cruise is still the star he used to be, as long as he's playing Ethan Hunt. Halle Berry is a popular woman as long as she's an X-Man. George Clooney is a star as long as he's smiling and charming (in, say, the 'Ocean's' franchise) and not grim and serious.

It's a weird time for stardom when the most dependably bankable stars, no matter what they do, are Will Smith and Meryl Streep. Both have upended conventional wisdom about ticketbuyers; Smith has disproved the long-held notion that overseas audiences don't want to see black actors, and Streep has shown that older, female audiences still go to the movies. The appearance of either of these stars in a picture is an automatic sign of quality assurance for moviegoers, one that can all but guarantee a hit movie.

So far, Hollywood's CGI wizards haven't found a way to duplicate Smith's charisma or Streep's talent. If the time comes when those qualities are once again valued more than plot familiarity and technical razzle-dazzle (and, given the ballooning expense of making blockbuster entertainment, that time may come soon), Hollywood will again chase after the stars. And their pet goats.

Do big stars still draw you to the movie theater?
Yes, I want to know if someone I like is in a movie before I decide to see it.349 (45.6%)
No, I'm more interested in knowing a movie's premise than who's in it.416 (54.4%)