HOLLYWOOD -- Call it the hunt for the new male movie star -- a youth to step into the shoes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt or even Leonardo DiCaprio, who's already hit the ripe old age of 32. In the next year, Hollywood is betting a billion dollars on a raft of relative unknowns in the hopes of creating a star to appeal to Millennial Generation, those born between 1978 and 2000, for whom Tom Cruise could be their father.
Ever heard of Emile Hirsch, James McAvoy or Sam Worthington? If not, you're not alone, but that hasn't stopped Warner Bros. from casting the 22-year old Hirsch in next summer's tent pole Speed Racer, or Universal from putting the 28-year old Scot, McAvoy (of The Last King of Scotland), in their spring 2008 action film Wanted.
And the macho Worthington -- not even famous among the cognoscenti -- is a 30-year old journeyman Australian actor who recently landed the lead in Avatar, Titanic director James Cameron's much-heralded return to moviemaking, which is due out in 2009.
"The studios need that new generation," says casting director Joseph Middleton, who recently auditioned almost every guy in his early 20s for Doug Liman's next film, Jumper, about a teleporting kid. "This is a window that opens every decade for the stars we're going to be watching for the next 30 years."
Or as former studio chief-turned producer Tom Pollock puts it: "It seems that new stars -- they come in bunches, and it's been a drought for a while."
You can also call it Hollywood's latest end-run around the $20 million leading man.
Consider 20-year-old Shia LaBeouf, the first among equals in this set of new leading men. A former Disney Channel star, LaBeouf rocked the industry last month when his film Disturbia opened to a healthy $22 million, far more than the recent openings of such pricey stalwarts as 43-year-old Nicolas Cage, 35-year-old Mark Wahlberg or 52-year-old Bruce Willis.
LaBeouf also stars in this summer's blockbuster wannabe, the $145 million Transformers. And he has been anointed by Steven Spielberg to co-star alongside the relatively elderly (in Hollywood terms) Harrison Ford, in the long-awaited fourth installment of Indiana Jones, which will make its debut next May.
Spielberg first saw LaBeouf when he took his kids to see the Disney movie Holes. He noticed that "this kid had remarkable acuity. There was something about the way he listened and looked at the world through the character he was portraying, that he made me want to see what he was so interested in looking at."
Despite his heat, LaBeouf is still a steal in Hollywood terms. According to insiders, he earned $400,000 for Disturbia and $500,000 for Transformers, and will move into the $1 million range for Indiana Jones, which one studio exec terms the going rate for newcomers anchoring tent-pole films -- those big summer movies that studios count on to make bottom lines green. That's a fraction of the standard mega-star salary, the $20 million and 20 percent of the first-dollar gross required to garner the services of a Pitt or DiCaprio.
"It's an economical thing," says Universal President of Production Donna Langley, whose studio not only cast McAvoy, but also has recently tapped 26-year-old Aussie unknown Luke Ford to take over The Mummy franchise. "We have to have movie-star movies, but you can't be in that business for all 15 to 20 movies you're making a year. If you can catch somebody on the upswing of his career, that's a nice place to be, too."
With budgets for this year's blockbusters like Spider-Man 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End hovering around the $300 million mark, the prospect of not having to pay top stars $80 million (Tom Cruise's take on Mission: Impossible 3) is enticing.
Whereas LaBeouf, and Hirsch are in their early 20s, the growing crew of would-be stars from England and Australia tend to be slightly older, but still new to Hollywood's embrace. Many have emerged as a result of collective Hollywood fatigue with the sensitive young men who have populated filmdom recently -- the generation of people like Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Jake Gyllenhaal, even Tobey Maguire.
"They're all pretty boys," says one leading talent agent. "By the time your 16-year-old is 18, she wants a little more testosterone."
Director Cameron considered almost every actor in his 20s to play Avatar's lead, a silent, stoic former Marine suffering from a spinal injury. He quickly grew frustrated with the stars who were available. "I didn't think they were tough enough for what I wanted them to do. [I kept thinking] 'Where are the men? Show me the men.' " After screen-testing a few, he ultimately opted for the unknown Worthington, who "literally had me at the first word out of his mouth. His line was, 'Yeah.' "
Rachel Abramowitz writes for the Los Angeles Times