Last year Hollywood sighed with relief after a potentially disastrous strike by actors was averted. Judging by the results from this holiday movie season, the moguls shouldn't have been so worried: big stars, once the industry's most dependable insurance policy, carried little clout at the box office. Major holiday releases with expensive stars like Jim Carrey (The Majestic) and Meg Ryan (Kate & Leopold) bombed, and even Tom Cruise couldn't turn Vanilla Sky into a blockbuster. Meanwhile, star-free projects like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings set box-office records. "With many of 2001's big hits, the draw was not a star but a concept," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. There were exceptions, of course; Ocean's Eleven is on track to earn $200 million domestically, thanks largely to neo-Rat Pack stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. But not one of the year's Top 10 moneymakers featured an A-list star, unless you count Eddie Murphy's voice in the animated Shrek. Are studio execs wising up? "A lot of people in the movie business don't bother to ask, 'Will the audience accept a star in this part?'" notes Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal, who nixed the idea of casting a star like Ryan or Roberts as the female lead in A Beautiful Mind--which is shaping up as a hit nevertheless. Of course, that fellow Russell Crowe might have something to do with it.
--By Jess Cagle