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Hollywood’s best actors for the buck
Aug. 31, 2010, 3:11 PM EST

In these frugal times, which actors earn studios the most for their money?

By Dorothy Pomerantz

Earning $20 million upfront for a movie is so 2007. These days, studios are squeezing every cent they can out of actors, and that means many stars earn the big bucks only after the studio gets back its money.

In these frugal times, it’s useful to look at which actors earn studios the most for their money. Pay someone $10 million to star in your big summer blockbuster and what can you expect for your investment? If you hire Shia LaBeouf, expect a lot. For the second year in a row, he tops our list of Hollywood’s Best Actors for the Buck.

When LaBeouf starred in the first “Transformers” movie in 2007, Viacom’s Paramount Studio was able to pay him under $5 million. It had to bump that up considerably for the second film (which earned $833 million in 2009), but LaBeouf still isn’t earning $20 million upfront to star in a picture.

As a result, he offers a great return on investment. For every $1 studios spend on the 24-year-old actor, his films return an average $81 of profit. For our list this year, LaBeouf also benefits from the fourth “Indiana Jones” film, which earned $790 million in 2008. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford split the bulk of the profits from that movie, leaving LaBeouf as a profitable co-star.

Slideshow: Hollywood’s Best Actors for the Buck

As the actor’s fame (and box-office earnings) increase, he’ll be able to demand more for each film, which will hurt his return-on-investment number unless the films are gigantic blockbusters. That could be the case with the next “Transformers” movie. LaBeouf was able to ask for more money upfront, but because the movie is being filmed in 3-D, it should earn even more than “Transformers 2.”

In order to create our list, we looked at the top 36 earners in Hollywood. To qualify, each actor had to have starred in at least three movies in the past five years that opened in more than 500 theaters. Movies that opened after June 1 of this year were not counted. We did not include animated films because the actors aren’t really the draw and they tend to take pay cuts for voice work.

We then used data gathered for our annual Celebrity 100 list to calculate each star’s estimated earnings on each film (including upfront pay and any earnings from the movie’s box-office receipts, DVD and TV sales). We then looked at each movie’s estimated budget (not including marketing costs, which are susceptible to accounting chicanery) and box-office, DVD and television earnings to figure out an operating income for each film.

We added up each star’s compensation on his or her last three films and the operating income on those films and divided total operating income by the star’s total compensation to come up with each return-on-investment number. The final number represents an average of how much a studio earns for every dollar paid to the actor.

Because women typically earn less than men in Hollywood, they make up a full half of our top 10 list. Anne Hathaway is the highest-ranking woman, in the No. 2 spot. For every dollar she earns, studios earn $64 off of her films.

Most of that payback is coming from “Alice in Wonderland.” The Disney 3-D film was a gigantic hit, earning $1 billion at the global box office, and Hathaway earned much less than star Johnny Depp. But she also benefits from 2009’s “Bride Wars,” which was a modest hit, earning $115 million at the global box office on a low estimated budget of $30 million.

Another woman on our list: Jennifer Aniston. The star makes a surprising appearance in sixth place, with a $21 return for every $1 she is paid. (She’s tied with Meryl Streep.) Although one of her included movies, “Love Happens,” was a huge flop, “The Bounty Hunter” actually did well, bringing in $136 million at the global box office on an estimated budget of $40 million.

Daniel Radcliffe ranks third, with a $61 return for every dollar he earns. Even though the star is now earning huge bucks for the last few “Harry Potter” films, the movies do so well that it balances out. He also benefits from the inclusion of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which came out before his quote skyrocketed.

In fourth place: Robert Downey Jr. The actor has gone from being a Hollywood pariah to the star of some of the highest-earning films of the last few years. “Sherlock Holmes” brought in $517 million last Christmas, and “Iron Man 2” has earned $622 million at the global box office. The better his movies do, the more he’ll be able to demand per film, but for now, he’s still a good Hollywood investment.

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