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the star market

The Star Market: Hollywood Wants Twilight’s Taylor Lautner to Be Their Next Star, But What’s His Real Value?

At all of 18, Taylor Lautner has appeared in films that have grossed over one billion dollars at the box office, and just by threatening to doff his shirt, he can reliably elicit shrieks and heart palpitations in a significant segment of the female population. But is the money and the screaming for Lautner, or for his Twilight character, Jacob Black? He’s become wildly in demand, with studios abruptly anointing him as the next big thing, yet he’s a bit of a cipher. When he leaves his phenomenon of a franchise, will he be Harrison Ford … or Mark Hamill? To find out, we examined his career arc and upcoming projects, interrogated agents, publicist, and managers, and measured the decibel levels outside theaters showing Eclipse, all to determine his value in the Star Market.

STOCK HISTORY: Michigan-born Lautner has been acting professionally since he was 9 years old, with such credits as Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl. But he didn't become a name brand until he got the Abs. When New Moon grossed $710 worldwide (and with Robert Pattinson largely absent from the movie), he and Team Jacob became the story. He made for the perfect focal point for the sequel's success because of his triumphant tale of fighting to keep his job and butterflylike rebirth; his new buffness made people root for him, just as they do the wiseacre outcast teenager in a teen movie who ditches her glasses and gets a makeover for the prom. Suddenly, even though he had only two hits to his name (both in a name-brand franchise), studios were weighing him for seemingly every new blockbuster that needed a young star — Spider-Man, Max Steel — and he was cast in Universal's Stretch Armstrong, as well as two genre movies, Abduction and Cancun. He's a bit of a blank slate, with a nondescript (though age-appropriately-so) persona, which allows Hollywood to project their own franchise fantasies on him and for tweens to latch onto. However, a true movie star has to attract a lot more people than just tweens, and he has a lot of work to do before adults consider him anything other than "that kid on my daughter's screensaver."

PAST EARNINGS:

Twilight (2008): $1 million

PEERS: When movies looking for a young star for popcorn fare are being cast, Lautner’s name is often mentioned in the same initial brainstorms as the much more entrenched Shia LaBeouf and Zac Efron (though Efron, in a bid for seriousness and a longer career, is vanishing from that conversation). Other stars in his strata: Kick Ass’s Aaron Johnson; Anton Yelchin (Chekov in Star Trek); future “Thor” Chris Hemsworth; and more serious thespians like The Social Network co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. The last two have the advantage of adult recognition and industry confidence, if not the musculature, but if Garfield's recent anointment as the new Spider-Man proves, that's not a deal-breaker.

Eclipse (2010): $7.5 miion

Stretch Armstrong (future): Deal pending delivery of script, though Eclipse’s ever-multiplying grosses will put him in an ever-stronger bargaining position. UPDATE: $7.5 million

Stretch Armstrong (future): Deal pending delivery of script, though Eclipse’s ever-multiplying grosses will put him in an ever-stronger bargaining position. UPDATE: $7.5 million

PEERS: When movies looking for a young star for popcorn fare are being cast, Lautner’s name is often mentioned in the same initial brainstorms as the much more entrenched Shia LaBeouf and Zac Efron (though Efron, in a bid for seriousness and a longer career, is vanishing from that conversation). Other stars in his strata: Kick Ass’s Aaron Johnson; Anton Yelchin (Chekov in Star Trek); future “Thor” Chris Hemsworth; and more serious thespians like The Social Network co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. The last two have the advantage of adult recognition and industry confidence, if not the musculature, but if Garfield's recent anointment as the new Spider-Man proves, that's not a deal-breaker.

MARKET VALUE: Hollywood is desperate for a dependably bankable male star, and Lautner's mix of muscles and soft, not-quite-ripe cuddliness is a combo that sparks fantasies of movies that attract both men and women. Though his winning track record is entirely tied to one franchise, at least that means that millions of people know him, which is more than one can say for the squads of equally good-looking guys on marginally rated CW shows or slasher films. The studios behind his next two movies, both likely to be mid-priced genre movies — John Singleton's Abduction, in which his character sees his face on a milk carton and realizes his childhood was a lie, and Cancun, a Taken-like thriller, only with the vengeful son tracking down his kidnapped dad — are betting that even if only a fraction of the Twilight audiences come to see him again, that will be enough to make a nice profit. As long as the Twilight movies keep coming, he'll be the matinee idol de jour — but the franchise's last movie opens in 2012, so the studios have to move fast.

WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS:
"Everyone wants him because that's what the Hollywood business culture wants: franchise movies," explains one agent. "And he's a bankable star because he's been in a successful franchise. You couldn't have a better launching pad." A manager liked what he saw when Lautner hosted Saturday Night Live, “because he showed he was game for anything.” And a publicist thinks his rep has been well managed: “His press all along has been very classy without being too trendy. That's good, because if you’re too trendy, you can wind up looking like you're just of-the-moment, rather than someone who’s going to have longevity.” What Lautner mostly has going for him is that he has nothing going against him yet, but that's also a concern. As the manager explains, “Lautner’s the perfect guy: all success, and no failure — but no failure because there hasn't been much of a chance to fail. So, everything remains to be seen.” A second agent, however, was more frank, disparaging Lautner's acting abilities and predicting that unless his current fame gets him some excellent scripts, "he'll wind up retiring as a very rich 20-year-old, or on some Aaron Spelling–type TV show."

THE ANALYSIS: It’s good to be Taylor Lautner right now; Eclipse just made another million dollars as you read this sentence. But if you're looking for fault lines in his future, look no further than last year's Remember Me: If Robert Pattinson, the throbbiest of all the Twilight heartthrobs, bombs in a romance, what will that mean for Lautner?

Ultimately, a box-office star has to stand for something, he has to tell audiences that they should expect something specific when they pay to see him. Lautner resonates calm and polite charm — years as a child actor will breed that into you — yet that's more pleasantness than charisma. He seems like a sweet kid who carries around his physique like it's a new toy he's really proud of. He technically does everything right: he had a three-month sock-hop romance with the equally famous Taylor Swift, popped up in Valentine's Day alongside more entrenched stars to establish himself as a rom-commer by association, and doesn't get in trouble. And yet the key word is "technically": He seems like he's been built by technicians attempting to construct the perfect movie star. Even his face looks vaguely man-made, like the enhanced handsomeness of Jude Law in A.I. When asked what Lautner is all about, most people would likely say "Twilight" and "abs," and then be stymied when prompted for a third answer.

But Hollywood needs him to succeed for its business model to continue; its old reliable stars are aging out, and nobody has stepped up to replace them. But to be a movie star and make a profit on a blockbuster that has cost $200 million-plus, you need to appeal to all age groups and genders. Lautner's fan base is very concentrated with tweens, which is not only narrow, but also constricts his ability to branch out. When adults see a teen idol and the ensuing screaming and swooning, they tend to think, "That guy is not for me," and it's much harder to get them to eventually accept him. It's good to be the actor who appeals to teens; it's bad to be the teen actor.

BOTTOM LINE: As long as there are Twilight movies — which means two more years — Lautner is a viable commodity. But once Breaking Dawn: Part 2 hits cable, if he hasn't clicked in anything else or beefed up his acting chops the way he once beefed up his physique, he'll have precious few chances to fail.

BUY/SELL/HOLD: Buy … for now.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images