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the star market

The Star Market: Can Studious Soap Opera Star James Franco Top the Box Office?

James Franco plays many roles (actor, artist, writer, student, filmmaker, etc.), but the 32-year-old is most famous for playing himself: a charming, handsome, restless talent with the ambition and will to try any and everything, from serious roles to soap operas, Spider-Man movies to cross-dressing, short stories to Funny or Die spoofs. In the past couple years he’s been everywhere — on TV, in theaters, on the cover of this magazine — which has made Franco a celebrity, if not quite a movie star. Until now, he has headlined, by himself, exactly zero high-profile films. But that changes this week with 127 Hours, the Oscar-contending, Danny Boyle–directed story of Aron Ralston, the 27-year-old hiker who amputated his own arm. Can it transform him from a fascinating multi-hyphenate into a box-office star? We spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If James Franco were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: The Palo Alto native got his first big break in 1999, playing cool stoner Daniel Desario in Judd Apatow’s short-lived Freaks and Geeks. After the show's cancellation, Franco landed a supporting part in the Spider-Man franchise, which sustained him through a series of roles in middling, dramatic box-office failures like Whatever It Takes, City by the Sea, Tristan + Isolde, and Annapolis. By 2006, disenchanted with his trajectory, Franco retrenched, re-enrolling in UCLA as an English and creative writing major.

Peers: While Franco doesn’t face much competition for many of his parts (few A-list actors are going out for General Hospital, or Gary Shteyngart’s book trailers these days), when it comes to movies, he’s still running behind more experienced leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Shia LaBeouf (who, coincidentally had the 127 Hours gig until he injured his hand on the set of Transformers 2). But he’s definitely in the same pack as Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Reynolds, and Sam Worthington.

In the past two years, Franco has been a perpetual motion machine. He received MFAs from Columbia and Brooklyn College and a film degree at Tisch. He appeared as Sean Penn’s boyfriend in a well-received performance in the Oscar-winning Milk. He guest-starred on 30 Rock, hosted Saturday Night Live, and then made a documentary about it. He published short stories in various literary magazines, and also a book. He appeared as Julia Roberts's boyfriend in Eat Pray Love. He put on a multimedia conceptual art show. And, most notably of all, he appeared on the soap opera General Hospital, playing a killer artist named Franco whose “canvas is murder.” Franco has become a high-profile artist, one whose movies are only a portion of his output, and only account for a portion of his success.

Peers: While Franco doesn’t face much competition for many of his parts (few A-list actors are going out for General Hospital, or Gary Shteyngart’s book trailers these days), when it comes to movies, he’s still running behind more experienced leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Shia LaBeouf (who, coincidentally had the 127 Hours gig until he injured his hand on the set of Transformers 2). But he’s definitely in the same pack as Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Reynolds, and Sam Worthington.

Market Value: Franco has never starred in a smash — but he's also never had a flop. Pineapple Express grossed a respectable $87 million, and since then, Franco’s been picking either low-key projects that aren’t built to break the box office (Howl, Milk), or aren’t expected to make their money thanks to him (Eat Pray Love was all on Julia Roberts). In other words, while Franco has been putting himself out there — way, way out there — in most other aspects of his life, he has been playing it relatively safe, if smart, in his film-role selection.

As a result, his public profile is larger than most of the parts he plays — he's a very famous guy with untested box-office appeal. How will audiences respond to a “James Franco Movie”? We'll know better after 127 Hours. But he'll soon have other opportunities to prove his worth. He'll be seen next spring alongside Natalie Portman in the medieval stoner comedy Your Highness, and in the lead role in 2011's Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Apes. He wouldn't be James Franco, though, if he didn't have some weird ones lined up: He's also collaborating with his performance-artist friend Carter on a movie, as well as developing two films about troubled artists (The Broken Tower and The Adderall Diaries) for himself to direct and star in.

What Hollywood Thinks: Hollywood likes Franco, but they’re still not quite sure what to make of him. He’s not doing things the way other people do. Says one agent, “He’s a true artist and super cool. Anyone who’d go do a soap opera as an experiment, while still a movie star? He’s fearless.” Seconds a manager, “He’s fascinating. I actually thought things were going off the rails with the General Hospital move, but he’s shown himself to be a provocateur. I think people appreciate that he’s more than what Hollywood wants him to be.” Says a publicist, “He keeps people guessing: ‘He’s a chameleon. He’s a comic. No wait, he’s a leading man!’ He keeps people wanting more.”

But even if he’s not doing things the typical way, most agree he's being smart: “I think he’s playing ‘The Game,’” says a manager. “He’s doing the indie art-house stuff, but also the commercial stuff that will pop. He turned a lot of heads with Pineapple Express. He was quite good on SNL a couple times, and on 30 Rock. He beat out a lot of guys for that 127 Hours job. It’s working.” A publicist concurs: “I actually think he’s done a really good job and made really smart choices, in terms of the press and his image. He didn’t have the best image during Annapolis, and as I recall, he kind of took himself too seriously. But I think the soap opera thing was pure genius. He’s constantly evolving his image. He’s not repeating himself over and over, like Jennifer Aniston.”

The Analysis: For James Franco, there’s a bigger question than simply “Can he be a box-office-topping movie star?”, and that is: Does he even want to be? Earlier in his career, when he was picking films like Tristan + Isolde and Annapolis, it sure looked like it. But now that he’s become a whirligig with his hand in so many different media, it’s less clear that his heart lies in blockbusters. What does Franco have to gain from being as famous as DiCaprio or LaBeouf? It would cut into time he might rather spend on offbeat pursuits, plus it would be harder to attend class with real paparazzi (instead of just fellow students) trying to take his picture.

That said, with his ever-larger movie roles and total media ubiquity, Franco does seem to be heading for the next level of fame. If 127 Hours gets him the Oscar nomination most expect, there will be very few parts — in mega-franchises, prestige movies, or you name it — beyond his reach. Franco wound up in the Spider-Man series after he tried out and didn’t get the part of Peter Parker. Does he still want to be a superhero? If the answer is yes, he'll probably get his chance.

The Bottom Line: After trying, and failing, to make it the usual way, Franco made it his own, totally singular way. If 127 Hours makes him a bona fide movie star, so be it. But if it doesn’t, Franco will surely find something else interesting to do.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy!

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images