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03.09.10

Is He Sabotaging His Career?

Taylor Lautner is seen as Hollywood's next action star, but is the 18-year-old Twilight heartthrob choosing the right movies? And will Rob Pattinson win in the end?

Team Jacob is beating the tar out of Team Edward? It may seem unlikely but that's how it would look in Hollywood if the Battle of the Twilight Gods were called today.

Robert Pattinson is about to take a non-vampire turn in Remember Me, a smallish romance involving forbidden love that's opening this weekend. Audience research suggests that its box-office performance will not burnish Pattinson's movie-star credentials though he may get some positive reviews. Meanwhile Lautner, choosing among several high-profile projects, has become the highest paid teen star in the business with a reported $7.5 million per movie.

"I excuse him because he's a kid," veteran producer Joe Roth says of Lautner's movie choices. "I think he's getting bad advice."

Lautner may be hot now but most insiders see Pattinson as the stronger actor. And Lautner has irked at least one high-profile producer by dropping in and out of many projects in recent weeks. "I've never heard of anything like this in my whole life," says Joe Roth, who headed the Fox studio in the 1980s and Disney during the ‘90s. Most recently, he was a producer for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Roth says Lautner is attaching himself to too many projects—including one of Roth's—that don't have completed scripts yet. "He's insane to commit to anything until there's a piece of material that he wants to do," Roth says.

By all accounts, the 18-year-old Lautner is an exceptionally affable and disciplined performer. Roth says he doesn't think the behind-the-scenes maneuvering has hurt him—yet. He prefers to blame Lautner's representatives. "I excuse him because he's a kid," Roth says. "I think he's getting bad advice."

Interestingly, Lautner and Pattinson are both represented by William Morris Endeavor, which declined to comment. But agency sources point out that Roth is the spurned suitor in this scenario. "It's so self-serving," one agent says of Roth's complaint. Pointing to a string of flops that Roth made during a particularly fallow period, he adds, "It ain't like he's a guaranteed hit-maker."

The project that has Roth upset is Max Steel, based on a Mattel action figure. Roth was set to produce the film about an extreme sports star who becomes bionic. A few months ago, Roth says, Lautner "sat in my office and said he was destined to do Max Steel."

Weeks after reports that Paramount had confirmed Lautner for the role came news that Lautner was dropping Max Steel to do Stretch Armstrong, based on a Hasbro property, for Universal. This time, Lautner would play a spy who comes across a stretching formula. The reported reason for the switch: Hasbro has done better than Mattel when it comes to getting movies made. (Hasbro is coming off a huge summer with Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, and has several projects in the works, including movies based on the board games Battleship and Risk.)

In the meantime, Lautner has also been attached to Abducted, based on a script that was snapped up by Lionsgate late month. As that was announced, Lautner dropped out of another project called Northern Lights, which involves "extreme flying" (of planes, that is). He was also reported to be starring in an action picture called Cancun, which has gone by the wayside. A source on Team Lautner says stars routinely flirt with many films at once and producers typically trumpet the association because "it moves their projects up the food chain."

But at this point, several industry executives say they wonder which Lautner project will finally gel. " Stretch Armstrong was in development at Disney under me," Roth says. "We took three shots at it. We couldn't do anything." (Universal is still awaiting a final script.)

While Roth is clearly annoyed at being "jerked around," others say it might make sense for Lautner to book projects fast. A number of Hollywood insiders—agents, producers, executives—are skeptical about his long-term prospects; one producer says dismissively that Lautner appeals primarily to "little girls and gay men." And a leading agent says Lautner reminds him of The Situation from Jersey Shore ("It's all his abs") or "that blond dude from Blue Lagoon," a heartthrob movie from 1980. (The dude in question was Christopher Atkins.)

But even those who are skeptical about Lautner's prospects are simultaneously rooting for the studios to make something of him. "Our business has to try to build new stars," says the agent. A former studio chief agrees that the paucity of stars under 30 is a serious problem for the studios. "I'm not justifying it, but it makes a lot more sense to put Taylor Lautner in Stretch Armstrong than it does to put Benicio Del Toro in Wolfman," he says.

Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Pattinson may be the tortoise to Lautner's hare. He and Lautner "actually have very different views of what they have in mind for their careers," says an executive who works with both. "Robert is much more about the artistic parts than the big commercial parts. . . Taylor was a child actor and worked in the commerce of our business." Indeed, Lautner has been acting since he was seven years old and got his first big movie break in 2005, in The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

Clearly Pattinson is looking to make more artistic choices and build a long-term career. (Between Twilights, he's set to star in Water for Elephants based on the historical novel by Sara Gruen, along with Academy Award winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz.) "The spin his people are putting on it is that he wants to do this for 40 years," says a talent representative. So Pattinson is looking to actors like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio as models, and some think he has a shot. "Pattinson is the more accomplished actor," says one studio executive. "I think he's more of a movie star as opposed to a hunk. He's got a better look."

As always, show business is unpredictable. A prominent agent says the odds of starting young and staying relevant are long. Both Pattinson and Lautner will have opportunities thanks to Twilight, he says, and the key questions are "do they chose right and have the talent to make the movies work?" On that point, the jury is not yet even convened.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.