A different ideal
Others point out that a different kind of star is needed to appeal in the global marketplace. The strapping All-American look is no longer the ideal, says Middleton: "Movies go to so many markets in so many places. The landscape of America is not so pristine white. It makes room for what looks like a leading man in so many other forms. You look at Shia, and you don't know exactly his ethnicity. Is it Jewish? Italian? French? Who knows?"
Most of these boys are featured in big-idea tentpole flicks, in which the concept remains bigger than the star. Still, betting on unknowns can be risky. No one walked out of last summer's "Superman Returns" too impressed by newcomer Brandon Routh; his overly pretty appearance and charisma deficit appear to have dampened the box-office returns.
Even for a superstar director like Cameron, 20th Century Fox was nervous about letting him hire Worthington to headline "Avatar," whose official budget is starting at $200 million. "It's a scary thing for [the studio executives] to do," says the director.
"Their instinct is a cover-your-butt, knee-jerk response. Even I started to feel it. Maybe we better give ourselves an insurance policy by casting someone with name value internationally." Cameron ultimately rejected the famous faces who were available. "They're overpaid, and they're not that great."
Many of these upcoming franchises are copying "Spider-Man's" wildly successful playbook and grafting coming-of-age stories onto action-adventure dramas, all which necessitate casting very young leading men.
" For "Transformers," the tale of sentient machines (autobots) whose lineage includes a toy line, comic book and cartoon, the filmmakers opted to create a human lead (LaBeouf) and give him a classic coming-of-age experience.
"There's this universal notion of a boy and his first car. What is that experience like when your first car is an autobot," says "Transformers" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. "It wouldn't hold if you cast somebody older."
Building fan bases
Although LaBeouf might appear to be an overnight success, he in fact is a former child actor who has slowly and steadily built fan bases. At 10, he was a stand-up comedian performing at an L.A. club whose shtick was, as he has told interviewers, talking "disgustingly dirty."
He later earned child fans by starring in the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens" and garnered a following in Hollywood when he appeared on the second season of the reality show "Project Greenlight." The series documented the making of the indie film "The Battle of Shaker Heights," and although both the film and the series tanked, LaBeouf appeared charismatic and endearing trudging through a disastrous film shoot.
"We were absolutely convinced Shia was a movie star," recalls producer Chris Moore. "I've been around it before with 'Good Will Hunting' and 'American Pie.' Shia has real acting ability. If you're a guy, you want to hang out with him. If you're a girl, you want to sleep with him. To be mainstream, if boys want to hang out with you and girls want to sleep with you, you can have a career for an awfully long time."
Although they might not be household names yet, most in the class of 2007 have fairly extensive acting resumes. Like LaBeouf, Hirsch was a child actor, but he eschewed Disney fare in favor of a raft of edgy films. McAvoy has appeared in British television since 1995 but caught Hollywood's attention only with his turn as Mr. Tumnus in 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia."
"Avatar" star Worthington has knocked about Aussie TV and film for the last six years. His only other claim to fame is as the man who was almost James Bond — ultimately losing the part in "Casino Royale" to Daniel Craig.
For the lucky few, getting the nod can be an exhilarating experience. LaBeouf had no idea why Spielberg had summoned him to his office out of the blue. "I think he thought I was going to call him in to punish him for something he did in one of the two movies he did for DreamWorks. He walked in my office like he was walking into the principal's. He came in looking all hangdog," recalls the director. Then Spielberg offered him the role as Indiana Jones' sidekick. Spielberg describes the youngster's reaction: "I thought that young man was going to drop dead of a heart attack in my office."