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Zac Efron and the Incredible Shrinking Teen Idol Stars

Audiences may love them on the Disney Channel and in ”Twilight“ but won’t pay money to see these actors in more grown-up roles

Zac Efron is a big star.

Teen girls shriek and grab at their clothes during his red carpet appearances, the paparazzi record his every move, and he regularly graces the covers of People and US.

But Efron falls short in one important respect: ticket sales. 

The disappointing box office performance of Efron’s “Charlie St. Cloud” last weekend shows that — like other current teen faves Robert Pattinson, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus — Efron has yet to prove his beyond-teen-idol box office chops.

“This was supposed to prove that his appeal was beyond teen girls, and obviously it didn’t,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “He may have to go back to his bread and butter roles, because you only get a few misses.”

The unfortunate thing is that in many respects Efron was doing precisely what he should do at this point in his career — stretch. He even backed out of high-school musical remake "Footloose" for "St. Cloud," a serious look at death and grieving. It was clearly an attempt to show that Efron had more to offer than just an impressively chiseled abs and few nice dance moves.

At a cost of $44 million, “St. Cloud” opened to the low end of expectations with $12.1 million for the weekend. Universal told TheWrap that given the serious nature of the film, the grosses are in line with its expectations. Still with a heavy marketing campaign and a July release date, the studio clearly hoped that Efron’s appeal would be enough to open the movie in the crowded summer season.

In a potentially bad portent for the film’s long-term box office performance, grosses dropped 32 percent from Friday to Saturday.

In fact, last weekend was particularly inhospitable to teen stars. Selena Gomez, a Disney Channel icon from her work on “Wizards of Waverly Place,” saw her film “Beezus and Ramona drop 52 percent, to draw just $3.7 million at the box office.

These modest performances follow a string of whiffs for the current crop of teen icons. Riding high in the "Twilight" series, Pattinson’s “Remember Me” cost just $16 million to make but only grossed $55 million worldwide. Likewise, his “Twilight” co-star Kristen Stewart struck out with her vampire-less role in “The Runaways.”Despite a much-hyped lip-lock with Dakota Fanning, that movie only grossed $3.6 million.

Taylor Lautner had a hit as part of a large ensemble cast with “Valentine’s Day,” but his trial by fire, a starring role in the big-budget action film “Stretch Armstrong” doesn’t arrive until 2012.

Outside of “Twilight,”, the Disney Channel has been the other breeding ground for young talent. Yet stars weaned on the popular kids network have found film success elusive. Miley Cyrus hit only a respectable double when “The Last Song” made $88 million. Not bad for a more adult role for the teen actress, but a far cry from the $155 million "Hannah Montana The Movie" racked up last year. 

Efron's "High School Musical" sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens fared even worse. She got a cold shoulder from audiences when her 2009 "Bandslam" banked a meager $12.2 million worldwide.

“What these younger actors are discovering is that the star is arguably less important than the reasons a movie needs to be seen on the big screen versus the small screen. It’s not who’s in it, but why do I need to pay $12 to see this on the big screen,” John Singh, an analyst with the box office tracking site Flixster, told TheWrap.

It doesn’t help that Efron’s other bid for critical respect, Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” failed to generate any awards buzz for the young star and grossed a measly $1.2 million on a $25 million budget.

His next movie, an adaptation of Nicolas Sparks’ “The Lucky One,” is a romantic sudser that would seem to play to his sweet spot. But even if it makes money, it might not help him clear a major hurdle — broadening his appeal to include young men and adults.

“He has to stay the course, and find something little more serious,” Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com, told TheWrap. “He’ll never be an action star or star in horror films or sci-fi, but he has to find something that works. He can’t just be that actor who guys think their girlfriends are in love with.”

Both Pattinson and Efron have evoked Leonardo DiCaprio as the actor they hope to emulate. DiCaprio broke a generation of teen girls' hearts as the doomed lover in “Titanic.” By working with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scrosese, and most recently Christopher Nolan in “Inception,” helped transform the former teen idol into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He's now respected more for his ability to disappear into a role than he is for his looks.

But DiCaprio was a respected actor best known for his independent movies before he ever broke big as an object of young girls' affections. Therein may the problem for Efron, Pattinson and their ilk, all of whom are known for lighter fare.

“DiCaprio was just as well known for ‘Basketball Diaries’ and ‘Gilbert Grape,’ which were gritty,” Contrino said. “He showed his acting chops before he had his teen sensation roles.”