Eddie Murphy is in desperate need of some career rehab. The "Saturday Night Live" alum used to be a sure thing in Hollywood. His family-friendly comedies like "Dr. Doolittle" and "The Nutty Professor" earned more than $250 million globally each and helped make Murphy one of the highest-paid stars in the industry.
But over the past few years the comedian has struggled. Two of his most recent films, "Imagine That" and "Meet Dave," were colossal failures. Murphy was paid millions up front to star in the films, but neither one earned back its production budget at the box office. "Meet Dave" earned only $51 million on a budget of $60 million. "Imagine That" did even worse. It earned $23 million on a budget of $55 million.
Those disasters turned Murphy into the second most overpaid star in Hollywood by our calculations. For every $1 Murphy was paid in salary we found that his recent films have returned an average $2.70. To put that in perspective, Nicole Kidman, who ranks 10th on our overpaid list, returns $6.70 for every buck she is paid.
So it’s no surprise to see the 50-year-old Murphy in career-building mode. It helps that he has director Brett Ratner on his side. Ratner helmed Murphy’s latest film, "Tower Heist," which hits theaters Friday. Murphy stars as a thief who helps Ben Stiller and a motley crew of amateurs rob a Bernie Madoff-like financier who has stolen their pension money. Early reviews have been decent. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter says that “however far-fetched [the film] is all but irresistible in its criminal legitimacy and its promise of just desserts.”
If the movie is a hit, it will go a long way toward improving Murphy’s reputation and his ability to offer studios a better return on investment. Murphy is also slated to host the Oscars ceremony (which Ratner is production) next February.
Another consolation: compared to Drew Barrymore, Murphy is a financial superstar. The actress tops our 2011 list of Hollywood’s Most Overpaid Actors, returning just 40 cents (not a misprint) for every dollar the studios spend on her. Barrymore doesn’t earn as much as someone like Murphy but her recent films have performed horribly at the box office. Her 2009 film "Everybody’s Fine" earned only $16 million globally and her 2007 film "Lucky You" brought in only $8 million.
To create our list we looked at the 40 highest-earning actors in Hollywood. To qualify, each 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 May 1 of this year were not counted.
We also didn’t look at animated films because the stars aren’t really the draw. So Murphy doesn’t get credit for the "Shrek" movies where he voiced Donkey. Those films have brought in a total $3 billion at the global box office.
We used data gathered for our annual Celebrity 100 list to calculate each star's estimated earnings on each film (including up-front pay and any earnings from the movie's box-office receipts and first year sales of DVDs). We then looked at each movie's estimated budget (not including marketing costs, which are susceptible to accounting chicanery) and box-office and DVD 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 a return-on-investment number. The final number represents an average of how much a studio earns for every dollar paid.
Will Ferrell, who topped our list of overpaid celebrities for the past two years, ranks third this time with a $3.50 return for every $1 he was paid. Ferrell’s number improved thanks to his 2010 comedy "The Other Guys" which brought in a total $170 million at the global box office. Unfortunately for Ferrell, he still has to live with "Land of the Lost" which earned only $70 million on a $100 million budget.
Just behind Ferrell is actress Reese Witherspoon. The Oscar winner can’t seem to score a hit lately, returning just $3.55 for every dollar she gets paid. A big reason for her low number: last year’s "How Do You Know." The romantic comedy (which co-starred Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson) cost an estimated $120 million to produce and brought in only $50 million worldwide.
Rounding out the top five: Denzel Washington. For every $1 Washington was paid his films earned an average $4.25. Looking at the box office of Washington’s last three films it might be hard to see how he made our list. Unstoppable earned $167 million and "The Book of Eli" earned $157 million. But Washington is an actor who can command as much as $20 million per film. At those prices, movies have to do much better than Washington’s have at the box office in order for him to offer a solid return on investment.