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Hollywood Banked on Taylor Lautner Being a Star, But What If Abduction Fails?

Taylor Lautner at his Abduction premiere.

Ever since he broke out as a teen idol in Twilight, Taylor Lautner's agents at William Morris Endeavor have been busily racking up multi-million-dollar roles outside of the franchise: They got him $5 million for Abduction (opening today), $7.5 million for Universal’s planned adaptation of Stretch Armstrong, and are said to be demanding a $10 million salary for Goliath, a modern retelling of the Biblical story in which he might play David. Also on his docket: Incarceron, based on the Catherine Fisher novel, and two other untitled action-thrillers — one with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes that’s currently out to studios, and another set up at New Regency Productions.

"William Morris has done a brilliant job of convincing Hollywood that he’s the next big movie star," says a senior production executive at a major studio, who asked not to be named because he regularly does business with Lautner’s agents and agency. Adds the exec, “Any agent can ask for ten [million], but you also need someone to pay. [The studios] certainly stepped up and they paid." But so far Lautner is all potential, never having actually led a film that didn't involve turning into a lycanthrope: Everyone was convinced that Robert Pattinson was going to be a huge romantic lead … until Remember Me proved forgettable. Another studio exec explains, “I remember when [Universal co-chairman] Donna Langley cast him in Stretch Armstrong, she said to me, 'He’s the real deal!' And I thought, Based on what?! Based on Twilight?” So what happens to his optimistic career if Abduction gets a harsh reality check at the box office?

Current audience polling data shared with Vulture by studio sources suggests Abduction’s appeal looks to be very limited — not just by Lautner’s own narrow fan base of tween and young teen girls, but by intense competition this weekend. Only slightly less than three fourths (72 percent) of total people surveyed were aware of Abduction, and only a third or so of those (33 percent) expressed "definite interest" in seeing it. Distribution insiders say that with those numbers, the film will be lucky to debut in third place with $12 million to $15 million, well behind the second week of a rerelease of The Lion King and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which is heading into its third weekend, and possibly behind Brad Pitt in Moneyball.

To understand why Abduction isn’t breaking through requires an understanding of Lautner's strengths and weaknesses. Post Twilight, it’s no surprise that women under age 25 would be most interested in seeing Lautner put the Ab in Abduction, and they are. Nearly 85 percent of that demo is aware of the film and almost half (43 percent) has expressed "definite interest" in seeing it. Unhappily, however, Lautner appears to be a surprisingly polarizing figure even among his core fans: The number of young women expressing "definitely no interest" is surprisingly high, almost 10 percent. (By way of comparison, only 6 percent of women under 25 and 3 percent of women over 25 said they were "definitely NOT interested" in seeing the male- and adult-skewing Moneyball, thanks mostly to the broad, intergenerational sex appeal of Brad Pitt.) Perversely, one former studio marketing chief theorizes that Lautner's relatively high turnoff rate with this demo might be a result of Twihards who can't separate fantasy from reality: “This could be that ridiculous Team Jacob versus Team Edward bullshit that tween girls care about so much.”

Then there’s the matter of Lautner’s intense competition for males of any age. Though Lautner's following is mostly female, the film is being marketed as a Tom Cruise–ian action flick, likely as a way to get men in, too. But they're not buying, especially with the film opening against Moneyball and Killer Elite. The latter film, with its fortysomething action stars Jason Statham and Clive Owen (and the 68-year-old Robert De Niro), has piqued the interest of action-addicted young males: Nearly two thirds (62 percent) are aware of it, and almost half of those (49 percent) expressed definite interest in seeing it. But while far more young guys have heard of Abduction (69 percent), they are decidedly less interested in it, with barely a quarter (26 percent) expressing definite interest in seeing his solo act.

Lautner, unsurprisingly, also loses the fight for older men, thanks to Moneyball: Nearly 81 percent of men over 25 have heard of Pitt’s film, and 42 percent have definite interest in seeing it, a number that will only grow larger thanks to its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, which still actually matter to older moviegoers. As of this morning, it enjoyed a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By comparison, almost two thirds (64 percent) of men over 25 have heard of Abduction, but only one in four (26 percent) want to see it — a number that won't be helped by its avalanche of pans; it hangs steady at a Rotten Tomatoes score of 7 percent. (The New York Times review carried the headline, "At Least His Abs Get a Workout," and singled out Lautner’s acting for special scorn, noting “If his physiognomy — recessed eyes that don’t seem to focus, a wide snub nose and Elvis-y lips — conjure Neanderthal manhood after a cosmetic makeover, his boyish monotone with its utter lack of inflection suggests that he is really an advanced robot simulating human speech without registering emotion or even comprehension.”)

So, if Abduction does fail to open in the high teens, what will happen to Lautner's future projects? First, Universal will likely consider putting Stretch Armstrong in turnaround. “Abduction is [like] selling Tobey Maguire in anything outside of Spider-Man,” explains our former studio marketing chief, “You have a built-in awareness, but that’s not the same as appeal. If I were sitting on top of Stretch Armstrong now, I’d be terrified.” Even before the weak tracking on Abduction surfaced, Universal’s new owners at Comcast were rapidly losing interest in reverse engineering pricey movies out of Hasbro’s toy chest. In the last two months, the studio put both Ouija and Clue in turnaround, and Stretch might well be next, since a big-budget, 3-D blockbuster cannot, by definition, be a “one quadrant” movie appealing only to squealing tween girls.

Even still, many of Lautner's other slated films will likely go forward no matter how Abduction fares, as a studio rarely backs out once a deal is signed. However, if the movie does underperform, every subsequent movie becomes all the more important to his future worth, and his $10 million price tag will surely be marked down. Agents say they fear his devaluation because that reality check could put a stop to the unreal checks their clients have been able to cash despite being still relatively unproven talent. For example, Ryan Reynolds is understood to have received $7 million for the now-filming R.I.P.D, a paycheck he sealed before Green Lantern and The Change-Up both failed. (And then there's the $3 million Alex Pettyfer was being offered before I Am Number Four cratered.) “It’s a spoiler for us, because they’ll have shown the emperor’s naked,” says one agent of another young leading man. “It’ll be like Jim Carrey [getting $20 million for] The Cable Guy all over again, or the infamous Gretchen Mol Vanity Fair cover. If it doesn’t open, that’ll be the end of exorbitant paydays for people who might actually deserve them, but haven’t proven themselves yet.” Indeed, as our production exec notes about Lautner, “Now it’s time to find out if people will say, ‘He’s a movie star!’ or ‘Good God, he can’t act to save his life!’” An end to the days when attractive hunks are paid eight figures simply because girls might love them: Will the class warfare never end?

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic