THR's 2011 Biggest Rule Breakers: Kim Kardashian, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Chuck Lorre and Ashton Kutcher

The Hollywood Reporter
THR's 2011 Biggest Rule Breakers: Kim Kardashian, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Chuck Lorre and Ashton Kutcher
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THR's 2011 Biggest Rule Breakers: Kim Kardashian, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Chuck Lorre and Ashton Ku …

This article appears in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Two thousand and eleven marked the end of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom said nobody would go see a period piece about African-American maids in the Deep South made by an untested studio director -- then along came The Help, DreamWorks' biggest hit this year with $202 million at the global box office.

Conventional wisdom said a comedy top-lining six women would appeal to only one of the four moviegoing "quadrants," women over age 25 -- until Bridesmaids earned $288 million worldwide.

2011's Biggest Rule Breakers Kim Kardashian, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Chuck Lorre and Ashton Kutcher: THR Year In Review

Conventional wisdom said that Chuck Lorre couldn't resurrect Two and a Half Men after his then-star Charlie Sheen spun into a professional tailspin -- but the CBS comedy returned in September and drew 27.7 million viewers, delivering the series' largest rating ever. 

In each case, these projects took one or more individuals who were willing to break all the rules, from George Clooney, who believed a political movie could work in an era that loathes politics, and earned three Golden Globe nominations for The Ides of March, to the Kardashians, a reality family who continues to defy expectations despite popular criticism.

At its worst, Hollywood is known as a fear-based industry. There are no new ideas, some say; good concepts are focus-grouped to death. No one, least of all an executive, wants to stick his neck out for something different. Even DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said earlier this year of Hollywood's current state, "It's a particularly dreary moment."

PHOTOS: 2011's Hollywood By the Numbers -- THR Year in Review

He's not altogether right. This is a town whose business is about creation -- creating stories and narratives that shape our lives, even as they shape our view of Hollywood. Yes, it's easy to dwell on the year's disappointments, the movies that bombed and the TV shows that were canceled.

But 2011 had plenty over which to rejoice -- not least that the conventional wisdom of 12 months ago is no longer valid today. Men will go see a comedy starring women; franchises do get better; shows can have second acts; and there is indeed an audience for terrific, original projects -- if the right people will fight for them.

PHOTOS: The Hollywood Reporter's Cover Stories

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The Sitcom Survivors: Ashton Kutcher and Chuck Lorre
Photographed by Brigitte Sire on Dec. 3 at Hollywood Center Studios in Hollywood.

"I thought he was really serious for a comedy guy," Kutcher, 33, recalls of his first meeting in April with Lorre, 59, a short chat orchestrated by CBS' Leslie Moonves that eventually led to the most improbable comeback story of 2011. At the time, Lorre had reason to be somber: Two and a Half Men, America's most-watched comedy, had imploded as star Charlie Sheen's drug-fueled tirades got him fired, leading to a $100 million lawsuit against Lorre and Warner Bros. Television.

But rather than close up shop, Lorre took a gamble and chose to reboot the show around Kutcher. "After that meeting was over, I called [Men producers] Lee Aronsohn and Edward Gorodetsky and I said, 'We have to make this happen, this guy's amazing,' " Lorre recalls. The bet paid off: Men will end 2011 averaging 19 million viewers each week, up a staggering 22 percent over Sheen's last season.

TV's top comedy showrunner (The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly) admits he was very nervous the night of the premiere, watching at his house with the casts and writers of all three of his shows. "It was a terrifying experience," he recalls. "Everything was being scrutinized, parsed, analyzed and condemned. It wasn't just a TV show, it had become something else." Now Lorre and Kutcher, who is signed for only one season, already have begun to talk about another. "Optimism and comedy writing are not necessarily things that go hand-in-hand," Lorre says. "But I'm as optimistic as I possibly can be about the show right now." -- Matthew Belloni

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The Rebels: Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos
Photographed by Robyn Twomey on Nov. 28 at Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif.

When a Wall Street banker told Hastings in December that just a year ago Netflix had been viewed with a mix of fear, envy and mystique, the 51-year-old CEO quipped: "Now it's just pity."

At least he is keeping his sense of humor. The company's stock was decimated in 2011, slashing about $313 million from Hastings' personal wealth. But don't let the stock price fool you, because Netflix made dramatic strides in 2011 and has cemented its place as a major player in Hollywood.

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Among its accomplishments: It plunged into original content by partnering with producers Kevin Spacey and David Fincher on the big-budget "TV" show House of Cards that will debut in 2012 (with Spacey set to star); it resurrected Fox's cult favorite Arrested Development with new episodes coming exclusively to Netflix in 2013; its presence as a bidder has increased the value of library TV and film content several-fold; and it expanded its streaming service so that it is now in 45 countries.

Netflix has 23.8 million subscribers in the U.S., and a Knowledge Networks study indicates that 35 percent of all Americans ages 13 to 54 use its service at least once a month.

The company also has been driving viewership of independent films, like Take Me Home Tonight, a 2011 release from Relativity that earned just $6.9 million worldwide in theaters but is a hit on Netflix.

"We bet a long time ago that independents would have a bigger impact in future years, and that's playing out very nicely," says Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer.

Hastings and Sarandos, 47, primarily focused on Netflix's streaming business in 2011, and even tried to separate it completely from its DVD service, which it planned to spin off into something called Qwikster, though the effort was quickly abandoned after a backlash from users.

Nevertheless, Hastings predicts that in 10 years, half of all TV watching will be done via the Internet, and those who doubt that Netflix will thrive in that environment should remember that in 2005, when Netflix was a small company pioneering a new business, it successfully stared down giant retailer Walmart, which abandoned its effort to compete.

Streaming is such a big part of Netflix already that "some reports put the Netflix traffic on a Sunday night at one-third of the total backbone of the Internet," boasts Sarandos. "And we're in just 1 percent of global households, so there's plenty of room for growth." -- Paul Bond

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The Blockbuster Producers: David Heyman and Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Photographed by Joe Pugliese on Dec. 11 at di Bonaventura's Brentwood home.

Do sequels have to get worse with every consecutive one? No. Sometimes, they get better. Exhibit A: Heyman, 50, and di Bonaventura, 54, oversaw the two hugely popular blockbusters that dominated the year's box-office charts. Warner Bros.' Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the eighth and final installment in the franchise based on the wizardly books of J.K. Rowling, outdid its seven predecessors by grossing $381 million at the domestic box office to become 2011's top movie. Paramount's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the saga of warring space robots based on the Hasbro toy line, was close behind with a $352 million domestic take.

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But that was nothing compared to the movies' enormous international appeal: Both more than tripled their box office abroad. Potter climbed to No. 3 on the list of all-time worldwide top grossers with $1.328 billion, and the third Transformers rose to No. 4 with $1.123 billion. The only two ranked above them are the mighty Avatar and previous chart-topper Titanic.

"Once you get over $500 million, $600 million, it's such a stratospheric thing, it stops being real and stops being a real number," admits Transformers' di Bonaventura, quickly adding, "It's very satisfying, though, and it's cool to be in the top 10 movies of all time." "But," interjects Potter's Heyman, "we also know that's only temporary." Says di Bonaventura with a laugh, "Because Jim Cameron will make another movie, and everyone will come down a notch."

Both producers' movies reached for and achieved new levels in visual effects -- in fact, Heyman winces at how relatively primitive the first Potter films now look. And they plunged moviegoers into richly imagined 3D environments, proving that technology is more than a gimmick. And everyone noticed. The reviews of Hallows 2 read like valedictories, praising the unprecedented accomplishment of keeping the cast together for a decade while telling a story that grew deeper and more perilous as the stakes at Hogwarts turned to life and death.

And as the latest Transformers grew more wildly kinetic, even some high-end critics surrendered, with the New York Times' A.O. Scott acknowledging a "visual imagination that is at once crazily audacious and ruthlessly skillful."

For Heyman, the Potter series is over, and setting more box-office records will become an even bigger challenge. He's working on Alfonso Cuaron's outer-space survival tale Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. But di Bonaventura, among myriad other projects, is exploring the possibility of a fourth Transformers with director Michael Bay. "We're not quite going to do a complete reboot," he says, "but our goal is to create another group of characters that can continue to sustain it." -- Gregg Kilday

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The Cinderella Story: Brunson Green, Viola Davis, Tate Taylor, Octavia Spencer and Kathryn Stockett
Photographed by Kwaku Alston on Dec. 7 at The Beverly Hills Hotel.

The creative and commercial success of The Help was 2011's little engine that could. It seems improbable that an aspiring filmmaker -- in this case, Taylor -- would happen to be childhood friends with Stockett, 42, author of the best-selling book on which the movie is based, and that he would have the prescience to attach himself as an untested feature director when optioning rights to the novel before it was published, along with another of his childhood friends, producer Green, 43.

PHOTOS: How 'The Help' Was Cast

It gets better: Along the way, Taylor, 42, and Spencer, 39, became roommates, and Spencer provided Stockett with some of the inspiration for the larger-than-life character Minny, whom Spencer would go on to play in the film. "It's amazing that friendship, loyalty and instinct can pay off in today's world. Kathryn, Brunson and I are all from the same town [Jackson, Miss.], and then Octavia and I were roommates," says Taylor. "This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen."

When Help, from DreamWorks and Participant Media, posted a solid five-day opening of $35.6 million in early August, seasoned box-office veterans thought it would max out at $100 million, if that. But the movie, distributed by Disney, became a sensation, grossing $169.2 million domestically. Overseas, Help has earned $30.1 million, a solid number considering it is a period piece about the American South of the early 1960s. All told, the movie has grossed $199.3 million worldwide -- nearly eight times its modest $25 million budget.

Now, Help is transforming into an awards darling. On Dec. 15, it received an impressive five Golden Globe nominations, including best picture in the drama category. Davis, 46, earned a nom for best drama actress, while Spencer and Jessica Chastain landed supporting actress mentions. Having also swept the SAG and Critics' Choice Awards nominations, Help is on a roll as its circle of friends grows ever wider. -- Pamela McClintock

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The Reality Moguls: Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner
Photographed by Kwaku Alston on Dec. 7 at The Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Be honest, it's happened. You're sitting around on a Sunday night and you accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon an episode of E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami. You're not sure which, because -- let's face it -- they're all sort of the same. But after a few minutes of mindless bickering, high-frequency baby talk and countless blank stares, you realize that you haven't changed the channel.

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Don't worry: You're not alone. In fact, nearly 10.5 million viewers tuned in between Oct. 9 and Oct. 10 to watch the E! spectacular Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event. And when Kim Kardashian filed for divorce in late October -- after only 72 days of marriage to NBA forward Kris Humphries and a reported $10 million wedding -- the reality star made worldwide headlines, appearing as the top story on nearly every news show, website and magazine cover (trumping such stories as the Occupy Wall Street protests and the financial crisis in Greece). Cries of backlash, plus a boycott movement, ran rampant.

With Kourtney and Kim Take New York's second season set to bow four weeks later, many of those experiencing Kardashian-fatigue gleefully waited for the series to fail. But defying all expectations (in true Kardashian form), the cycle premiered Nov. 27 to record-breaking numbers, scoring the franchise's highest-rated premiere to date with nearly 3.2 million viewers. Once again proving themselves indestructible, reality TV's royal family beat the odds, becoming the first true test case of how reality fame can be stretched well beyond its 15 minutes. And how an entire network identity can be built on it.

NBCUniversal cable entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer, who added E! to her portfolio earlier this year, recently revealed plans to create three to four more cycles of the Kardashians' reality franchise, most likely spotlighting the two youngest sisters: Kendall, 16, and Kylie, 14 (both technically Jenners). "These shows could really go on for years," says the newly single Kim, 31, who says she's looking forward to a fresh start in 2012. "There are so many of us, but I think we'll see more of my younger siblings."

But the shows are just one piece of their reality empire. Last year, the Kardashian family matriarch, Kris Jenner, helped the family bring home a whopping $65 million from an onslaught of deals, from popular dietary supplements and a $1 million Las Vegas appearance fee to the hyper-lucrative Sears Kardashian Kollection clothing line and six-figure weekly-magazine contracts. "I'm really proud at how hard we've all worked this year and what we've accomplished," says the 56-year-old momager. "We roll as one big unit, so whether something's sad, happy or tragic, we come together as a family and everything falls into place."

Since their 2007 television debut, this ever-growing family (Kourtney Kardashian, 32, is expecting her second child with boyfriend Scott Disick, 28) has continued to redefine what it means to be a "reality star" and continues challenging industry expectation. When others would hide, they confront; when some might worry about overkill, they double down. Love them or hate them, the Kardashians have taken Hollywood. -- Leslie Bruce

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The 3D Geniuses: George Lucas and James Cameron
Photographed by JUCO on March 30 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

To say Cameron, 57, and Lucas, 67, march to the beat of their own drummers -- and dreams -- doesn't begin to describe their approach to filmmaking and the marriage of storytelling and technology. In 1977, Lucas made history when releasing Star Wars, which became a worldwide cultural phenomenon and launched the era of the fanboy tentpole. He also defied the Hollywood system by retaining rights to his films and building his own special effects empire hundreds of miles from Los Angeles in Northern California.

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Likewise, Cameron has again and again pushed the boundaries. Everyone said Titanic would be a financial disaster for Fox, to the point that the studio shed risk by bringing Paramount aboard as a co-financier. Titanic, released in 1997, reigned as the top-grossing film of all time for more than a decade after raking in more than $1.8 billion worldwide. Of course, it was trumped only by Cameron's Avatar, which revealed the true artistic promise of digital 3D and took a decade to realize so that technology could catch up with his vision. As with Titanic, naysayers said Avatar -- which cost more than $300 million to make -- would sink Fox. They realized how wrong they were when the movie grossed nearly $2.8 billion globally.

Neither man is resting on his laurels, and both remain technological mavericks at the forefront of the 3D movement. The 3D conversion of Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace is set to hit theaters Feb. 10, and Cameron's 3D version of Titanic opens April 6. Cameron recently shared footage of his film with members of the media, who were wowed. There's big money at stake, if the September theatrical rerelease of Disney's The Lion King in 3D is an indication -- that reissue grossed $164.2 million worldwide.

Lucas intends to convert all six Star Wars films. In fact, his team has been studying and perfecting the conversion process for seven years to avoid complaints that it is a cheap trick to generate grosses. "It's not cheap," Lucas confessed to theater owners in March when speaking on a panel with Cameron, "and it's not fast. If you want to do it right, you can do it right." If there's a motto both he and Cameron live by, it's that. -- Pamela McClintock

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The New Horror Kings: The Paranormal Activity team: Jason Blum, Katie Featherston and Oren Peli
Photographed by Wesley Mann on Dec. 9 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.

During the THR photo shoot with the creative team behind the hit horror film Paranormal Activity 3, things got eerie: Several lighting rigs mysteriously activated, beeping loudly while their strobe lights flashed. Noting the rarity of such an incident, a technician suggested that radio interference might have been the culprit. As if on cue, Peli, creator of the found-footage franchise, and star Featherston said in unison, "That's paranormal activity." Their timing was perfect.

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It's been that sort of year for Peli, Featherston and producer Blum, whose film has grossed $202 million worldwide against a budget of $5 million. Released on Oct. 21 by Paramount, Paranormal 3 opened with a $53 million weekend, shattering projections that had put it in the mid-$30 million range. With a domestic take of $104 million, Paranormal 3 played a hand in Paramount topping its previous record of $1.71 billion in annual domestic earnings, reaching $1.76 billion before year's end.

With a devoted fan base that comes out in droves, the supernatural franchise is looking more like a sure thing than the surprise it once was when Peli's brainchild -- a $15,000 indie project filmed in seven days in his home -- went on to gross $193 million worldwide. And with the end of Lionsgate's Saw franchise last year, Paranormal is poised to be the dominant horror property for the foreseeable future. "Our fans are really loyal and really excited, and it continues to be cool," says Featherston, 29, whom Peli found during an open-casting call. "I never get blase about it; I'm very thankful."

The budget-minded filmmaking for Paranormal 3 is the sort that inspires Peli, 41, who doesn't understand why some films cost so much money to produce. "It's a great challenge to try to make movies with limited resources because it really makes you think," he says. Blum, 42, who produced all three films via his Blumhouse Productions banner, believes the low-budget model can be applied to another genre: comedy.

To wit, Blum, whose company recently teamed with Gold Circle Films to sign a first-look distribution deal with Universal, is producing Jay Chandrasekhar's The Babymakers, about a married couple who can't conceive and recruit their friends to rob a sperm bank where the husband once was a donor. "It'll be interesting to see how the idea of doing low-budgeted commercial movies fares with a comedy," he says.

The Paranormal trio continue to work together, migrating to the small screen for ABC's The River, an hourlong drama that Peli created and is executive producing alongside Blum and early Paranormal champion Steven Spielberg. The show, which debuts in February and will feature Peli's horror muse, Featherston, centers on a TV personality who has gone missing on the Amazon. Peli is mum on the prospects for another Paranormal film except to say, "We are never going to make a sequel … just for the sake of making a sequel." But then he adds a small tease: "It's safe to say there are discussions." -- Daniel Miller

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TV's New Darlings: Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Meriwether, Jane Levy and Emily Kapnek
Photographed by Autumn de Wilde on Dec. 1 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.

"It's always been sort of a boys club," Kapnek, creator of ABC's breakout comedy Suburgatory, says of the television business. "For a long time there have been shows that center around women that were written and produced by men," says the 39-year-old showrunner. "But now there are shows created by women, run by women and starring women. It's much more genuine, and I think people are responding to that."

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Indeed, the numbers prove it. After years of male domination on both sides of the camera, the current TV season has served up a refreshing dose of estrogen -- particularly in the comedy sphere, where shows like Suburgatory and Fox's New Girl are enjoying critical and commercial success. The former averages a strong 2.9 rating among the coveted 18-to-49 demo, the latter an even more impressive 3.9 rating, according to Nielsen, and both average more than 8 million total viewers. It helps that these women are actually on the lower end of that younger demo (a majority of the most powerful showrunners are north of 40), which means they fit snugly inside the viewership niche to which their content is marketed.

"It's really gratifying," says Meriwether, the 30-year-old New Girl creator (and TV's youngest female showrunner), of the shifting landscape that is breathing fresh life into network comedy. New Girl received two Golden Globe nominations Dec. 15: best television series (comedy or musical) and best actress for star Deschanel.

"I look forward to a time when it's not about 'female comedies,' and they're just comedies," adds Deschanel, 31, who suggests the abundance of lead female roles in front of and behind the camera should have come far sooner.

For Suburgatory star Levy, who is newer to the medium, the attention the series has received is the ultimate reward. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'I just love your show,' " says the 21-year-old, grinning. "That we've created something people respond to and want to watch every week is so spectacular. That's been the most gratifying." -- Lacey Rose

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The Man Behind the Mask: Andy Serkis
Photographed by Iva Lenard on Dec. 11 at Fiordland Lodge in Te Anau, New Zealand.

While Serkis might not be the most recognizable face in Hollywood, his characters are among the most notable and profitable in cinema history. With a pioneering Oscar campaign under way for his standout motion-capture portrayal of the evolved chimpanzee Caesar in Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the London native might -- despite never actually appearing on camera -- snag the nomination many believe he deserved for inhabiting the tragic character Gollum in Peter Jackson's epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which grossed more than $2.9 billion worldwide).

PHOTOS: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' -- The Many Faces of Andy Serkis

"Performance-capture is not a genre of acting -- you don't act any different," says Serkis, 47. "It is another way of recording an actor. It still reclaims the fidelity of a performance."

Because digital artists use computer technology to create the finished product that audiences see, motion-capture suits allow an actor to play a role without being limited by body shape or size. Says Serkis: "It allows you to transport yourself into anything and takes you further than prosthetic makeup."

The actor recently reunited with Jackson for his role as Captain Haddock in Paramount/Sony's The Adventures of Tintin (which opens in the U.S. Dec. 21 but has already grossed more than $233 million internationally) and is reprising his Gollum character for the soon-to-launch Hobbit franchise.

But it's his role as Caesar in Rise (which grossed $481.2 million worldwide) that Serkis hopes will convince Academy voters that motion-capture work "allows for truthful, emotionally engaging performances" no different from a live-action role. And it seems the studios are finally listening: Serkis closed a reported seven-figure deal with Fox to return for an Apes sequel.

Co-founder of London studio The Imaginarium, the actor is exploring the future of motion-capture for film, TV, games and live performances. "Holograms, avatars -- I think there will be a range of possibilities for how this will be used," Serkis says. "We are at the very beginning of storytelling." -- Carolyn Giardina

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The Interviewers: Steve Kroft, Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer
Photographed by Wesley Mann on Dec. 14 at Studio 450 in New York.

Their styles are divergent -- Sawyer is empathetic, Kroft is dogged, Lauer is smooth -- but these interviewers representing the three  major networks ultimately share a common goal: "Sometimes you think you know the story, but you go back and look again," says Sawyer. "It's about waking all of us up. That is the reason we do it." In the age of Facebook status updates and Twitter news feeds, these seasoned journalists still retain the power to spread a message more quickly than any other medium and remain loyal to the craft of story-telling, regardless of the subject, all while remaining fiercely competitive.

While ABC's World News anchor, who turns 66 on Dec. 22, has pursued little-told stories of poverty in Appalachia and the plight of children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she also has landed some of the biggest gets of the year: Jaycee Dugard (the special attracted nearly 18 million viewers in July); Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (more than 13 million viewers); and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his first interview since 2006. Sawyer describes her Rumsfeld sit-down as an "arm wrestle. He loves to see if he can unnerve and back you down." But Sawyer and her peers do not intimidate easily.

Lauer, the glue in NBC's Today ensemble, says "any topic is open," including Steven Tyler's struggles with substance abuse, Brad Pitt's feelings about ex-wife Jennifer Aniston and former Vice President Dick Cheney's defense of waterboarding.

"It's not the topic," he explains. "It's the tone. If you can make people comfortable and get them to trust you, then you can hit them hard on something."

Lauer's skills have earned him the respect of his competitors, and speculation has been mounting about his future on Today, the top-rated morning show for 16 years and a cash cow that generates half a billion dollars in ad revenue. CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager recently told THR that he'd like to have Lauer on 60. ("It's very flattering," responds Lauer, who turns 54 on Dec. 30. "I'm a fan of the show.")

Kroft, 66, has taken on the mantle of the crusading correspondent at 60 Minutes, grilling Justice Department officials about the lack of prosecutions on Wall Street, gamely pursuing Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson and buttonholing Congress members (for a story about insider trading in Washington) at their weekly press briefings.

"I really had a lot of fun chasing the congressmen down," he laughs. "I got as angry as everybody else about this stuff. And I'm going to keep doing these stories."

Kroft also has become the president's de facto interviewer, sitting down with Barack Obama 12 times on 60 Minutes, beginning when he declared his candidacy, then again days after the mission that took out Osama bin Laden in May (14.1 million viewers watched) and most recently on the Dec. 11 edition of the broadcast, when Kroft pressed Obama on his record and his foundering approval ratings. Nearly 15 million viewers tuned in to that broadcast, making 60 Minutes the fourth-most-watched show of the week behind only NBC's Sunday Night Football, NBC's pregame show and CBS' Two and a Half Men.

A real sign of power? The president, says Kroft without a pause, "has never said no." -- Marisa Guthrie

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Bridesmaids Breakouts: Annie Mumolo, Judd Apatow, Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig
Photographed by Kwaku Alston on Dec. 1 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.

Bridesmaids had been in theaters for mere hours when the calls started coming in. They weren't good. "We were looking at a $13 million weekend, which we had been told would be terrible," recalls Feig, 49, of the early onslaught of disappointing phone calls. But by midafternoon, the response had changed for the better, and by dinnertime, the director was confident he had a hit on his hands.

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The Universal comedy was co-written by Mumolo and Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig -- former members of L.A. improv group The Groundlings -- and ended up opening to more than $26 million that May weekend. Seven months later, the bawdy flick starring a posse of six women, including CBS' Mike & Molly star McCarthy, 41, has grossed $288 million worldwide, making it the largest of producer Apatow's big-screen hauls (including 2007's Knocked Up).

Mumolo, 38, and McCarthy are still reeling from the film's success and the professional doors it has opened for them. The movie has been nominated for two Golden Globes and a pair of SAG Awards, and many credit the buzz from McCarthy's raunchy Bridesmaids performance for her surprising Emmy victory in September.

"People are willing now to listen to my ludicrous ideas," says Mumolo of Bridesmaids' effect on her career. Among other projects in the works, the pair is developing a film to star McCarthy as the mastermind of a plan to hijack the Stanley Cup to cheer up her sick husband.

As for the broader industry impact? "It's great when a movie like this does well. … It's so silly that most movies are made for bloodthirsty men," laments Apatow, 44, before adding a dose of his hallmark snark, "I hear that women are more than half the population." McCarthy echoes her producer's thought: "Who on Earth doesn't know a funny woman? I don't know why there aren't more movies about weird, funny women. It's high time." -- Lacey Rose

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The Quadruple Threat: George Clooney
Photographed by Frank W. Ockenfels 3 on Oct. 24 at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood.

How often is anyone nominated as an actor, writer, producer and director in the same year -- with not one movie, but two? The answer: never.

But that's what happened to Clooney when the Golden Globe nominations were announced Dec. 15. It's not the first time the star has been a multiple nominee for two pictures, though: He also received three Globe noms for 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana; the latter earned him a supporting actor Globe and Oscar.

Not bad for an actor who admits he's "afraid of failure" and who says: "I failed so many times, I have a much better understanding of this journey. It's how you handle the down part [that counts]."

What's so fascinating about Clooney is that, on each occasion, he's done it with the sort of independent movies largely shunned by today's stars. His two 2011 pictures (The Descendants and The Ides of March) together have earned a mere $65 million domestically, and Clooney hasn't had a hit that reaped more than $100 million at the U.S. box office since 2007's Ocean's 13.

The fact that he's maintained his almost unrivaled star wattage without more blockbusters is a testament to two things: his enormously appealing personality, which was evident at a recent THR Roundtable photo shoot, where he greeted each assistant individually, and his moral stance. Clooney, 50, has turned into one of the most principled stars in Hollywood, willing to lay his neck on the line for causes such as Darfur and Haiti earthquake relief (remember the telethon he put together that raised $61 million?), without being the tiniest bit self-righteous.

This is the year in which Clooney has reminded Hollywood that one can remain at the top of the pecking order simply by staying true to oneself. Given all the temptations of money, blockbusters and franchises, that's a stunning achievement. -- Stephen Galloway

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Home Wreckers: Cast and creators of American Horror Story: Brad Falchuk, Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Ryan Murphy
Photographed by Smallz & Raskind on Dec. 6 on the set in Hollywood.

Glee co-creators Murphy and Falchuk never set out to reinvent the horror genre with FX's stylish, spooky and occasionally campy American Horror Story, but Murphy says the show has "reinvigorated the non-vampire, non-zombie, monster-free horror subset genre." It was a risky move, one the duo didn't make easier when bringing on Britton, then best known for her portrayal of saintlike Friday Night Lights matriarch Tami Taylor, for a role that required a risque sex scene with a man in a rubber suit.

The horror-thriller -- which revolves around a family (McDermott, Britton and Taissa Farmiga) who moves into a haunted house and is tortured by the twisted ghosts of the estate's former residents -- has been a ratings standout since its Oct. 5 bow. It became the male-skewing cable network's No. 1 series premiere in history in three key demos, including the coveted adults 18 to 49, averaging 2.8 million viewers through 10 episodes and earning a second-season pickup, fittingly on Halloween.

The series picked up two Golden Globe nominations (for best drama and supporting actress for Jessica Lange), and Lange snagged a SAG nom for drama series actress.

Murphy, 46, who began working with creative partner Falchuk, 40, on FX's 2003 to 2010 drama Nip/Tuck, notes that AHS arrived as audiences worry about the uncertain economy. Adds Falchuk: "It's the fear of home foreclosure, the fear of losing your job. They look for a manifestation of their fears, and we've been able to give people some images to hold on to instead of having to hold on to this amorphous blob of fear, like our Rubber Man or the thing in the basement."

McDermott, 50, who didn't shy away from the nudity, violence and sexual content that comes with playing half of the tormented couple, says viewers are responding to the risky nature of the series. "We're being honest, and people are responding to it," he says. "It's breaking new ground."

Meanwhile, Britton, 44, says that after a beloved five years on FNL, the lure of doing something as different as AHS was a choice she needed to make. "I was a little nervous," she confesses. "I thought, 'People aren't going to like Tami Taylor having sex with a rubber man.' "

It's unclear what season two will look like, and Murphy is cryptic about what's to come. "We knew what the cliffhanger of this year was and what the end episode was," he says of the series, which saw   Britton's character die and become one of the house's undead in the penultimate episode. "We haven't been able to say how we can sustain it, but I think the last episode shows you what we're going to do. Maybe not." -- Lesley Goldberg

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The Oscar Bait: The Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close team: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Stephen Daldry and Max von Sydow
Photographed on Dec. 15 at Canoe Studios in New York.

9/11: It was the central, traumatic event that determined much of the tragic course of the past decade, but it's a subject Hollywood has largely avoided. A few films (Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass' United 93) dared to re-create the events of that fateful day. But even as the nation has struggled to come to terms with its lingering aftermath, movies, more attuned to escaping into the past or projecting into the future than confronting the reality of the present, have avoided examining the wounds left behind.

Until Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. That director Stephen Daldry, backed by producer Scott Rudin, should dare to tackle Jonathan Safran Foer's novel should come as no surprise. The two collaborators proved with a film like The Hours (2002) that they aren't afraid of literary material that doesn't easily translate to film. And Foer's book, narrated by a 9-year-old boy, Oskar, as he wanders around Manhattan trying to unlock a mystery left behind by his father, one of the victims of 9/11, offered plenty of formidable challenges, both structural and emotional.

"I think people have to make up their own minds about whether they are ready to watch," says Daldry, 50. "For me, I felt ready to spend two years exploring this story, which is predominantly focused on a family's coping with the death of a father, son, husband."

Certainly, if moviegoers need reassuring presences to lure them into the drama, Daldry couldn't have found more reliable actors than Oscar winners Tom Hanks, 55, and Sandra Bullock, 47. Both know how to use their very likability to challenge audience expectations. As if to add historical perspective, the director brought in Max von Sydow, 82, who conveys Old World experience as a mysterious, mute man whom young Oskar befriends.

But it was in casting Oskar that Daldry took his biggest risk. He vowed that unless he found the right boy, he wouldn't make the movie; then he spotted Thomas Horn, a Kids Week contestant on Jeopardy! After a series of meetings, he somehow intuited that Horn, who had no acting experience, could master playing the wise-beyond-his-years Oskar.

Hanks, who plays Oskar's gone-missing father, says of the film's timing: "Ten years, more or less, might just be the beginnings of the opening of the window of the statute of limitations in order to deal with our own individual feelings."

But with Hanks appearing onscreen mostly in flashbacks to happier days, it's Bullock who is asked to shoulder the film's most emotional scenes. "I loved how messy the grief was, because grief is messy," she says of Loud's anguished mother-son confrontations. "Everybody grieves completely different. You have generations of grief shown in this film. I don't want to say that I am representing a body of people, because I can't possibly connect to what the pain is that they feel. But for this woman, the struggle with her son I thought was so poignant in that it was complex and messy."

Horn, 14, who is impressively composed and madly precocious both onscreen and off, more than matches the older stars scene for scene. And while he hasn't decided yet if he wants to become a full-time actor -- he also is interested in computer programming, he says -- "I really liked the experience." But he's smart enough to know that "many experiences aren't like this even for experienced and very talented actors who are at the top level of filmmaking." The young man has figured it out: Most movies don't take these kind of chances. -- Gregg Kilday

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Unlikely Heroes: Paul Walker, Justin Lin, Vin Diesel and Chris Morgan
Photographed by Joe Pugliese on Dec. 16 outside of Milk Studios in Los Angeles.

Universal gave the world something it didn't even know it wanted: Another turbo-powered Fast and the Furious movie. How else to explain the incredible performance of the franchise's fifth installment, Fast Five? The movie, which starred Diesel and Walker, with Dwayne Johnson thrown in for extra muscle, revved up an astonishing $626 million worldwide, $210 million of that domestically. 

Even more astonishing, it got great reviews! (A franchise-best 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Five benefited from a shrewdly strategic release date in late April, helping it get out in front of the summer competition. Along with Bridesmaids, it helped the studio weather a rough year at the box office and showed the town that it's possible to reinvent a franchise by switching gears and genres -- in this case, going from a street-car-racing movie to an international-heist film, which was teased by a simple end-of-the-movie cameo by Diesel in 2006's third entry, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. (Some payoffs just take longer than others.)

"Although it started with the idea of spotlighting this illegal street-racing phenomenon, it's really a camaraderie story," says Diesel, 44. "Hollywood has been somewhat void of it since the Sam Peckinpah days. It's an exploration of friendship and family in the modern age in a cool way."

Diesel and Walker, 38, have appeared in two movies in the series; Fast Five writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin have been with the franchise for three installments; and producer Neal Moritz has kept the motors turning throughout. Sometimes the oil of a creative team doesn't turn to sludge over time but actually makes the machine run faster (and furious-er). In fact, Universal rewarded Lin, Morgan, 41, and Diesel with production deals in the wake of the movie's success.

"When you have an opportunity to do something again, the money goes up and people get more conservative," says Lin, 38. "For us, it's about going the other way and to try new things." -- Borys Kit

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The Opportunists: Bethenny Frankel and Andy Cohen
Photographed by Timothy White on Dec. 15 at the Bravo Clubhouse in New York.

$120 million for a drink with your name on it? Take that, Snooki! Bethenny Frankel, 41 -- Apprentice finalist and original castmember on Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City -- has turned her 15 minutes into an empire, licensing her Skinnygirl cocktails to Fortune Brands' Beam Global for nearly the budget of a Tom Cruise movie.

In doing so, she has proved you can become just about as big as Cruise himself, if you know how to spin celebrity right -- which she has done not only with Skinnygirl (a product line that includes everything from undergarments to personal-training tutorials) but also with a New York Times best-seller (A Place of Yes comes out in paperback Jan. 3) and the third season of her Bravo show, Bethenny Ever After, which bows in February. While a proposed talk show with Telepictures, a unit of Warner Bros., will not go forward in syndication this fall, she says she's considering numerous other opportunities.

"Life has changed a lot," says the married mother of a 20-month-old daughter, between bites of a spinach-and-onion omelet. "It's all incomprehensible to me."

But not to Cohen, 43, the guy whom -- at least in part -- Frankel has to thank for it. The exec's knack for spotting talent is evident in the stars he has developed for Bravo, including Emmy winners Kathy Griffin and Tom Colicchio. The result: Cohen has helped elevate a little-watched artsy network into a destination for must-see reality. Bravo will round out the year No. 3 among younger women and up 5 percent in total viewers, according to Nielsen. But that's what he's supposed to do. What he's not supposed to do? Make himself a star as well.

The former CBS morning show producer has developed his own entry, Watch What Happens Live, a late-night talk show born out of his popular Housewives reunion shows. Applauded for both its price tag -- WWHL costs about a quarter of what its rivals do -- and its social-media interactivity, the campy talker will expand from two nights to five in January. The move not only will raise Cohen's public profile but also thrust the host into competition with heavyweights David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon to land late-night guests.

"Bethenny and I have some things in common," observes Cohen. "We're multitaskers, we cut to the chase, and we're both really driven." -- Marisa Guthrie

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