There was a time when the presence of a top star could guarantee a movie's success - but not any longer.

Film writer Steve Pratt says it is now marketing, not talent, that sells tickets.

ARNOLD Schwarzenegger used to be able to do it. The two Toms, Cruise and Hanks, still can. Julia Roberts is one of the few women who has the power. But none of them do it quite as well as Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.

What they can do is "open" a movie - industry-speak for an actor whose name on the marquee guarantees brisk opening weekend business no matter whether reviews are good, bad or indifferent. If a movie can't achieve high enough grosses over the first few days, it will disappear rapidly from screens.

The star system is changing. The days when Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone could command salaries as big as their muscles are gone, as audiences wearied of their brainless action movies. This summer Schwarzenegger's name will be above the title again in the long-delayed Terminator 3, but the franchise, not the actor, is the attraction.

There's still talk too that Willis might reprise his Die Hard man-in-a-vest persona and Stallone put on boxing gloves for another round with Rocky. Let's hope not. Like Burt Reynolds, once the number one box office star and now lucky to get a cameo, their day has passed.

The movie world prefers to play it again Sam with tried and tested subjects. The merest mention of the Hogwarts wizard or The Lord Of The Rings is enough to guarantee a rush for cinema tickets. Marketing rather than talent is what sells a movie today, with actors increasingly forced into a supporting role.

Stars don't enjoy the power and kudos they once did. Studios will only pay the top earners $20m a movie if the movie conforms to something producers know people want to see. If the role or the project is the least bit off-beat or quirky, they'll demand the star takes a pay cut or deferred salary.

The big picture is that few actors today can command big money without strings attached, either artistic or commercial. The time when the stars could ask for more, like some cinematic Oliver Twist, are gone. The cost of making and marketing a Hollywood movie is too high.

The evidence is in the movies coming out of America, the film capital of the world, in 2003. Most are sequels, remakes or franchises rather than star vehicles. Original ideas are few and far between, and you can bet most of them are low budget and independently made.

Cinemagoers can expect second helpings of Charlie's Angels, Bad Boys, Tomb Raider, X-Men, The Fast And The Furious, and Legally Blonde. Not one, but two sequels to The Matrix will be released this year. The producers of American Pie serve up a third helping as American Wedding. The final part of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy premieres around Christmas.

One comic strip hero, The Hulk, debuts as efforts continue to revive the Batman and Superman franchises. A sequel is in the works to Spider-Man, one of last year's biggest hits. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban will start filming in the spring, reaching cinemas in 2004.

Even Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are teaming up again for a fourth Indiana Jones adventure. The actor needs a hit. His star power isn't what it used to be. His most recent film, the real life submarine drama K:19, flopped badly despite tireless promotion by Ford himself.

People were much more interested in his relationship with Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart. Today's movie stars are as likely to be known for their personal lives as for their performances on screen. Their cinematic pulling power is judged by their ability to attract headlines. That way they keep themselves in the public eye, a star in the media even if their movies fail to attract the same attention in cinemas.

In the days of the studio system, movie bosses were selling a brand. Stars were locked into long-term contracts, with output rigidly controlled by studio bosses and their images moulded by publicity departments. The actor was the selling point. Audiences went to see "the latest Bette Davis movie" or "the new Cary Grant comedy". It didn't really matter what the title was, they knew exactly what the star would do - the same as they did in their previous movie, and the one before that, and the one before that.

This typecasting put the performer in an artistic straitjacket, but audiences were more comfortable with something familiar. A real movie star, it's been said, is someone who gives the same performance every time. Only the settings and the costumes change. When they insist on proving their versatility, audiences often stay away in droves, although awards can be compensation for commercial failure.

Today, a blockbuster is more likely to be created from a comic strip hero like Batman or a literary character like James Bond rather than having a star name above the title. At 40 years old, 007 is the cinema's most successful franchise. The name of Ian Fleming's superspy is enough to attract audiences, no matter which actor is licensed to kill.

The opening credits may state A Film By So-and-So, but the number of directors who are household names is small - Spielberg, Kubrick, Scorsese, Tarantino. Their work is analysed endlessly by movie buffs, but their names alone doesn't sell seats. If producers knew why Titanic became the biggest grossing movie of all time, they'd all be rich and successful. Every film would be a Titanic not a Heaven's Gate. But no one possesses a cast-iron formula for a hit. Each one is a gamble.

Titanic became a box-office champion through repeat business, with teenage girls wanting to see Leonardo DiCaprio time and time again. On that basis, he might be considered to have some of that old-style star quality. Fans clamouring for his autograph at this week's London premiere of Catch Me If You Can is further evidence. But his name alone still isn't a guarantee to open a movie. His latest film is sold as a package, combining two popular actors, DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, with a top director, Steven Speilberg.

Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Sean Connery, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are reliable names to have above the title. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino earn good reviews but only so-so ticket sales. The new generation of Hollywood actors, such as Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett, have also yet to prove that they're more just than a pretty face.

Actresses struggle even more. Julia Roberts is Hollywood's biggest female star, certainly the only one with enough appeal to open a movie. Nearest rivals Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Nicole Kidman are often able to attract publicity, if not always audiences. None come close to achieving that must-see magic appeal of old-time Hollywood actresses Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.

There are always exceptions. One of 2002's biggest hits was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a low budget comedy without any stars. Good word-of-mouth ensured it was still among the list of biggest-earners a year after opening. And rapper Eminem defied the odds with his first film 8 Mile, overcoming the poor record of music stars as screen actors to see his acting debut achieve a massive $55m opening weekend.

No mercy is shown at failure to open a movie. Look at Madonna's latest Swept Away. The film, directed by husband Guy Ritchie, failed to overcome bad advance word and struggled to find an audience even on a limited US release. The film was quickly pulled from cinemas, as distributors abandoned a planned UK cinema release and announced it would go straight to video.

* The Northern Echo has teamed up with UGC Cinemas in Middlesbrough to give readers a chance to win tickets to Catch Me If You Can. Simply log on to for your chance to win.