the star market

The Star Market Revisited: Is It Over for Katherine Heigl?

Katherine Heigl Photo: Patrick McMullan

Eighteen months ago, on the eve of her assassin action-comedy Killers, Vulture undertook the “definitive analysis” of faltering rom-com queen Katherine Heigl for our very first Star Market. The Grey’s Anatomy star was at the tail end of a disastrous PR cycle, in which she’d trashed the show and movie (Knocked Up) that made her famous, demanded $3 million for six minutes of screen time for Valentine’s Day, and appeared generally mean and ungrateful in most public spaces. Still, at the time she was an undeniable box office phenomenon, though our experts expressed some concern over the tracking of Killers and her upcoming projects. Those assessments turned out to be accurate: Killers and Life As We Know It grossed about $20 to 30 million less than her earlier films. She has tried to staunch the damage of her bad image; while publicizing Life she admitted her likability problem, and while hyping her new movie, One for the Money, she has played up her family life and even announced that she would be willing to return to Grey’s, if the show would have her. But was it enough? In a special Revisited Edition of our weekly Star Market, Vulture tracked down the experts to ask: If Katherine Heigl were a stock, would you buy, hold, or sell?

Stock History: If you’re not familiar with Heigl’s early career — Grey’s Anatomy, Knocked Up, her subsequent rom-com ascent — her first Star Market has the relevant details. Since that analysis, written on the eve of Killers, Heigl has appeared in exactly two movies, dropped out of a third (Adaline, a fantasy drama about a woman who gains immortality from a lighting strike), and taken up mommy blogging.

Peers: Like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, and Reese Witherspoon before her, Heigl used to be a “Turn-key” — just get her signed on and you had yourself a go picture. No longer. Heigl now not only finds herself off that vaunted list, but “she’s not on any lists at all,” says one top talent agent. “She’s on a respirator. She’s not the girl anymore.” Instead, Heigl has fallen out of view, far, far behind a pack of young insurgent leading ladies — Emma Stone, Amanda Seyfried, Scarlett Johannson, Mila Kunis, Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst — who themselves have nowhere near the clout that Roberts, Bullock, and Jolie et al. once did. Even Mia Wasikowska, who isn’t known for comedy, is ahead of Heigl now, as is Another Earth star Britt Marling. In short, when all of these names are ahead of you, you can’t really claim to be on a short list.

Market Value: At the top of her game — only two years ago! — Heigl had a $13 million asking price and could summon an opening weekend gross of over $20 million from her still-devoted Grey’s fans. No longer. Killers and Life As We Know It, the only two rom-coms that Heigl has made in the interim, eked out an unimpressive, if not totally embarrassing, $47 and $53 million domestically, respectively. Meanwhile, Heigl has continued to insist on giant paychecks ($8 million for Killers, we’re told), which famously cost her a place in Valentine’s Day when they went to Julia Roberts instead. She presumably took a significant pay cut to appear in follow-up New Year’s Eve, but her involvement did the movie no marketing favors, and it underperformed massively, opening to only $16 million. Her upcoming projects reflect this diminished earning power: Heigl will be able to blend in among other big names (though also not as big as they used to be) in The Wedding (Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams, and the ascendant Amanda Seyfried are among her co-stars), and her second announced project is starring in and producing an HBO movie, The Knitting Circle.

What the Town Says: In the eighteen months since we last looked at the town’s reaction to Katherine Heigl, things have not gotten better for her. Privately, studio executives refer to Heigl not as a woman, but as a foul weather system: “Hurricane Heigl,” for her infamously high-strung temperament. The head of marketing at a studio is blunt: “I don’t know what her value is anymore,” says this exec, “She’s uh, ‘less than easy’ to work with.” And as stories of her reputation have increasingly gone public (starting with her grouchy and impatient departure from the TV show that made her) and the quality control of her film choices has all but disappeared, her fan base is backing away quickly.

Heigl’s problem is clear, even to Heigl, which makes the diagnosis that much more worrisome: In an interview with Elle magazine last December, she observed, “I’ve never really been America’s sweetheart, but for a minute I think that’s what they wanted me to be. And I had ‘em for a second thinking maybe I was. And then I opened my mouth and it was clear I wasn’t.”

Though she’s known for playing the statuesque blonde who’s a goody two-shoes, her frosty public image subsumes that, and it’s cost Heigl her core fan base. As one studio marketing consultant explains, “Her base is the Grey’s Anatomy audience. It was the women that watched and still watch that show.” But the latest audience tracking leaked to Vulture by a studio distribution chief shows One For the Money, an adaptation of the wildly popular series of Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich, is tracking through the floor, even with what should be her core constituency of women over 25: Fewer than two thirds of women under 25 (61 percent) are aware of the film, and less than a third of them (31 percent) expressed “definite interest” in seeing it. And the studio behind Money, Lionsgate, seems to acknowledge the effect she now has on people. Says one distribution chief, “Look at the TV spots: You notice that they’re not calling her out? There’s no ‘Katie Heigl stars in …’  They’re going out of their way to not mention her. They’re hiding her; they might as well black her fucking face out. Because when you don’t call out a movie star like that? They know there’s an issue. She did something to turn everyone off. Whether it’s behavior or perception, but she did something.”

This week Lionsgate undertook emergency action to get her best demographic to sample One For the Money, putting tickets to the film on the social media couponing site Groupon for just six dollars. This can be seen as a savvy way to target the right audience, as a former Groupon executive tells Vulture that nearly two thirds of the visitors to the deal-of-the-day website are primarily well-heeled women, age 25 to 35 — the very group Heigl’s movie would most benefit from reaching. But it’s a double-edged sword. Because the very fact that Money needs help in its star’s sweet spot “reflects back on her,” says our marketing consultant. “She is not a star. If she was, you wouldn’t have to be doing this … If it works, you have a gigantic asterisk on it. [Studio] people will ask, ‘How much of it was Groupon, how much was because of her?’” It doesn’t help matters that Heigl’s movie seems to have had its lunch eaten by the forthcoming weeper The Vow, starring Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, whose track record in romances like Dear John and The Notebook is far better than Heigl’s. “It’s interesting that the Groupon announcement came just as The Vow came on tracking,” notes our consultant, “It’s completely stopped the movement of all the other female movies on the survey.” (The Vow doesn’t come out until February 10, but already it enjoys 68 percent awareness among women over 25, a honking 61 percent definite interest, and is the first choice of more than a fifth of them — massive.)

Indeed, the latest tracking numbers do not suggest that women alone can save One For the Money, though. It is currently expected to open to only $7 million to $9 million, owing to its weak overall appeal. Only slightly more than half (55 percent) of moviegoers surveyed were aware of the film, and slightly more than a quarter (29 percent) expressed definite interest.

Analysis: Reps say there’s a great irony in that Heigl’s next film is called “One For the Money” — it neatly sums up her approach to most movies since 27 Dresses. “They [her agents at Paradigm] really tried to maximize her quote, but they out-priced her,” says one agent. “Then she followed that price up with bad bombs and bad attitude. She doesn’t have the value she used to have, and people think she’s incredibly difficult to deal with.”

Meanwhile, the Valentine’s Day–New Year’s Eve debacle is the Heigl arc in microcosm: She can beg her way back in, but no one wants to see her. Says a former studio marketing chief who consulted on New Year’s Eve, “I did an exercise [while looking at the poster], just grabbed a pencil and looked at the faces I liked, and the ones that I didn’t care about, and the ones who were a negative. And she was a big negative, for a lot of people. And she was supposed to be the big positive.”

Oddly, her flops seem to showcase a cognitive dissonance caused by Heigl’s public persona: She was playing a relatable love interest, and yet moviegoers increasingly thought of her as tough and snappy. Says a marketing exec, “In Killers, she was a pampered rich girl who’s a goody-two-shoes. She’s all kerfuffled when she bumps into [Ashton] Kutcher, because she’s a ‘nice girl.’ Come on. This [new role as a tough bail bondsman in Money] is a little off that hard-core image disconnect, but it might be too late.” Had she taken on unapologetically bitchy, maneater roles earlier, we might have less of a time suspending disbelief. After all, Angelina Jolie really popped in Mr. & Mrs. Smith when she paired her bad-girl offscreen rep with a femme fatale role that was far more edgy than Lara Croft. But the time for that course correction seems to be nearly past: Two top publicists say there’s little to be done except wait for the radioactivity to die down, and reemerge in either indie film or network television.

“I think she tried to fix this with PR once, but at this point, I don’t buy anything coming out of her mouth,” says one top flack. “It’s funny, because the question we were asking ourselves last night is, ‘Does she have really bad management, or just terrible taste?’ Momagers are never helpful, but part of the problem seems to that she seems to have become incredibly complacent with her choices: She’s out there promoting crap, and people are not respecting that.”

Another publicist is incredulous at Heigl’s temerity in her ham-handedly public disclosure that she’d been seeking a return to Grey’s Anatomy. “She wants to return to the show?” asked one PR maven, incredulously. “Once you walk away from a show like that — the way she did — there’s no going back. And to say it that way, ‘I always felt that if they wanted me to come back’ and ‘I want them to know that I’m down with it if they want me to … ’ is amazing [chutzpah]. She needs to stay away [from the limelight] for a while, come back with a film worth seeing, and be given extremely detailed talking points to promote it. She has to prove herself as a human being and an actor.”

Bottom Line: Heigl’s seemingly unfixable image problems have cratered her box-office draw, and she’s off the leading lady short list, say our experts. It will take a long retreat from the spotlight (and some soul-searching) and a very careful reemergence to get her back on it.

Rating: Strong Sell

Related: Movie Review: Don’t Spend Money on One For the Money

The Star Market Revisited: Is It Over for Katherine Heigl?