Do Movie Stars Still Matter?

After recent box office misfires like The Mummy, the role of movie stars in the 21st century is worth reevaluating.

This weekend, a new batch of films are opening in wide release, with each’s studio and distributor holding baited breath to see what the boffo box office gods will wrought upon them. Yet among the holdovers, a movie that is merely one-week old is reentering the fray, dead on arrival. Once Universal’s daring gambit to jumpstart their own shared superhero universe, The Mummy has quickly become an infamous Hollywood pariah—a soon-to-be fabled case study in how not to build multi-headed franchise hydra.

It wasn’t even Sunday morning before Deadline’s first post-mortem coldly and mercilessly dissected everything that went wrong. But the most compelling and far-reaching autopsy to date came a few days later in the pages of Variety. It was titled “Inside The Mummy’s Troubles: Tom Cruise Had Excessive Control,” and it’s filled with so much studio scapegoating of its star that one could be mildly surprised that it didn’t attribute the quote “Let them eat cake” to the Mission: Impossible lead. Nevertheless, and for all the malicious backbiting that has quickly swirled around The Mummy, the article raises an interesting point: do movie stars still matter?

As the article acutely and rather sweepingly states, “Cruise’s controlling behavior comes as Hollywood’s star system is in tatters. In the 1990s and early aughts, studios shelled out big money for the likes of Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Harrison Ford, confident that their names above the title could guarantee ticket sales.” And Variety is not wrong. That system has long been supplanted in the last decade by audience demand. The current trend is so ubiquitous now that it’s almost redundant to point out that superheroes and other age-old IP brands have replaced familiar faces as the biggest driver of moviegoers. In this context, Tom Cruise leading The Mummy to a measly $31.6 million on a $125 million budget (not counting marketing costs) is grim.

But does this mean that movie stars could be really defunct? The rest of the summer may aid that prognosis. After all, Johnny Depp’s fifth outing as Capt. Jack Sparrow in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is underperforming in the U.S. with only a $140 million cume to date, and Mr. Franchise Viagra himself, Dwayne Johnson, couldn’t save Baywatch from flopping with only $53 million to show thus far in its domestic take.

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And yet, I would contend, movie stars still have a vital role in the industry, albeit not the one they have historically enjoyed since the days of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Traditionally, a movie star would be a face or presence so captivating that audiences would line up again and again, no matter the film. They just needed to see their favorites one more time.

Indeed, The Hollywood Reporter has all but abandoned its “Top 10 Most Bankable Stars” ranking system, which rated a star’s bankable quality. Every few years, they would take a straw poll of industry insiders about who could open a movie over $25 million in its first weekend, and who could simply get a film greenlit by signing on—as in it was the strength of the name, not the concept, that got a studio to say yes.

Tom Cruise was ranked amongst the top three the last three times the poll was conducted (1999, 2002, and 2006), and fellow Dark Universe stars like Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp also cropped up in the final one. Yet by the 2006 poll, star importance was receding. Even if these stars could open a movie over $25 million, that number is irrelevant in an age where studios relied on tentpoles that were needed to open over $100 million. Technically, The Mummy did reach that previously magic number (ignoring inflation). But by 2012, less than a decade after the most recent bankable list, The Avengers opened at over $200 million, moving the goal posts yet farther afield.

In this environment, it doesn’t really matter who the fresh face is when it’s simply the concept—usually complete with some familiar member berries—that gets people inside the tent. Thus far, the summer’s biggest hits are both from superhero franchises: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman. The latter is actually a throwback to classic old school Hollywood storytelling, and indeed has officially minted Gal Gadot as a movie star. The former is a smirking, modernly serialized sequel to one of Marvel Studios’ biggest hits, which in 2014 likewise minted Chris Pratt as a movie star with its 21st century branded synergy. And as long as Pratt is in other familiar brands—like a Nostalgia-Make called Jurassic World—he continues to be one of the biggest box office openers on the planet. Then again, when he starred in an original project with the other hottest new star of the decade, Jennifer Lawrence, Passengers could barely limp to $100 million domestic.

So is it easy to conclude movie stars are irrelevant now? Sure, but that would be wrong. Increasingly, it is clear that movie stars are not what opens modern blockbusters… but they can be why the blockbusters stay popular and create genuinely positive word of mouth.

The best example may very well be a fellow Marvel Studios alum, Robert Downey Jr. If THR conducted their Bankable list in this decade, Downey would be at the top with a bullet. He commands staggering salaries every time he dons the motion-capture iron suit, and each quip he makes in those Marvel movies likely comes with a $500,000 price tag. While this doesn’t necessarily translate to projects he makes away from Tony Stark—as seen in the critically and financially anemic The Judge in 2014—it is the qualities he brings as an actor and charismatic star presence that has turned Iron Man into a money-printing machine.

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The appeal of a highly budgeted superhero movie helped make the very first Iron Man and Marvel Studios model lucrative in 2008, but it is Downey’s talents at playing that character that made him adored by fans. The impact of his presence can be tested in sub-franchises Marvel has made on the side. Prior to Captain America: Civil War, the best a Cap movie could earn was $714 million worldwide. Throw in Downey as Iron Man, and Civil War crosses $1.2 billion worldwide.

While the power of stars as actual box office draws in blockbusters has weakened, their ability to affect a blockbuster via talent has grown. It’s what turned Johnny Depp from an eccentric indie darling to a coveted lead known for eccentric risks after 2003’s original Pirates of the Caribbean, and it is one of the differences between a superhero movie that just sits there or that is buoyed by a charismatic lead turn, such as Gadot’s warm presence in Wonder Woman.

So in the game of blockbusters, perhaps signing Cruise, Depp, Crowe, and a number of actors also over 40-years-old from an era where their names meant box office gold is a bit misguided on Universal Pictures’ part. Instead, the focus should be on getting a talent that will make a character sing for audiences. Then cross-pollination in endless sequels and spin-offs writes itself. And as a side effect, you may just give someone the power to actually make some good movies too.

Indeed, movie stars can still open movies. Just not fiscal-year defining movies that studios pitch their calendars around. The aforementioned Passengers is only considered a disappointment because Sony spent $110 million on it, but $100 million in the U.S. and $303 million overall is a box office cume based solely on the appeal of Pratt and Lawrence. The film was critically panned and had a meager CinemaScore, but the original concept still saw audiences turn out—just at smaller numbers. Likewise, stars can still be used to open medium-budgeted movies that, if good, can really light a fire in the industry.

Earlier this year, La La Land was a surprise box office sensation, earning more than $443 million worldwide between December and this past March. Lionsgate likely felt comfortable greenlighting the project because it starred Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two stars who lived up to their fabled chemistry’s reputation by giving compelling turns (even if the singing was less wondrous). It earned Stone an Oscar, but it also helped convince audiences to see a musical, and the combination of that with a quality, medium-budgeted movie, turned into a boffo crescendo.

The trend was repeated throughout 2016, with Tom Hanks’ solid Sully and Amy Adams’ amazing Arrival using star power to greenlight original, moderately expensive concepts that when they worked each globally earned over $200 million.

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So the movie star system really isn’t in tatters. It’s just been reordered into something that emphasizes actual talent and quality storytelling more than ever on a reasonable dime. And as a fifth Transformers approaches the horizon, studios should have learned long ago that those things are not synonymous with blockbuster moviemaking.