How Movie Franchises Became More Important Than Their Stars

Henry Cavill Chris Pine

How do we define a movie star today? Kaitlyn Flannagan/Observer/Getty Images

At this very moment, moviegoers are about to lose two of the most iconic characters of the silver screen—at least the current iterations of them. Henry Cavill has finished his tenure as Warner Bros.’ Superman, while Chris Pine and Paramount have walked away from the negotiating table for Star Trek 4 (now the film may not happen at all). In both instances, the dispute is over value—the actors believe they are worth X, while the studios think the figure is closer to Y.

Hard-fought negotiations are nothing new in Hollywood. But the definition of a movie star and the value these A-list actors carry have become so blurred in the current landscape that the canyon separating talent and studios is getting increasingly difficult to cross. Fans may wish Cavill could leap this chasm in a single bound and that Paramount’s conversations with Pine would hit warp speed, but neither scenario is likely. No longer does a film’s success rely primarily on an actor’s star power, and this new reality has clouded the entire filmmaking process.

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To make sense of it all, we need to answer three questions: 1) What were the factors used to define a movie star 25 years ago?; 2) How has the process changed?; and 3) What is the modern definition of a movie star? Let’s do that.

Will Smith Tom Cruise Box Office

Movie Stars at the Turn of the Century

As recently as 25 years ago, the process of evaluating stars seemed far simpler. You looked at their box office track record, you looked at their Q score—which measures their familiarity and appeal to the public—and you matched it up with a fitting film. There’s a reason why Keanu Reeves, despite appearing in dozens of successful projects, never broke out in period pieces. Properly pairing a movie’s concept and its star was crucial, but doing that wasn’t nearly as challenging as it is today.

“When looking at an actor for a big project, you would look at the budget of the movie and the concept of the movie, and then you’d look at who the audience for the movie was,” Barry London, former vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount, told Observer. “If the movie was for older men, you weren’t going to put Alicia Silverstone in it and lean on that marketing. The tenor of the movie and who it was for would help determine who was cast.”

On the flip side, studios would also sign content deals with certain stars and then look for vehicles that suited their brand and could easily be promoted. Tom Hanks was one of the biggest box office stars of the 1990s because studios could trade on his national appeal to both critics and audiences. He was not only one of the finest working actors of his generation, but also a well-liked celebrity with an immaculate reputation among casual observers. Following back-to-back Oscars for Forrest Gump (1994) and Philadelphia (1995), he became a decorated prestige leading man whose name alone could get a project greenlit en route to an impressive opening weekend.

Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Julia Roberts—they were all carefully curated brands masquerading as celebrities. That’s what was sold to audiences first and foremost.

Star Wars: Episode IX Spoilers

What Changed?

The advent of at-home entertainment such as DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu has eaten into the film industry to the point that major studios have reined in their annual output and increasingly relied on established brands to attract audiences. Original concepts, traditional star-driven vehicles and more standard fare like mid-budget dramas, comedies and rom-coms have felt the brunt of the fallout. As the name of the property has become all-encompassing—people turn up in droves for Marvel and Star Wars movies—the names of its stars have lost some of their luster. This is one of the main revelations underscored in Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz’s 2018 book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies.

“The big change is that in the past, the studio would start with Will Smith or whomever and try to figure out the best vehicle for him,” Fritz told Observer. “Now, they start with a piece of intellectual property they believe has value and then they try to figure out who the best stars are for it and whether it even needs a ‘star’ or if unknown, low-cost actors are better.”

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were virtual newcomers when Lucasfilm cast them in 2015’s The Force Awakens; Chris Pratt was best known for NBC’s beloved but little-seen Parks and Recreation before 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy; even already-famous Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon was a gamble as an action hero in The Bourne Identity.

Over the past two decades, international grosses have also become more and more important to a film’s bottom line. There was a time when studios really only had to worry about America, but now they must consider global tastes in order to turn tidy profits. China is on pace to overtake North America as the most crucial box office region, which has led to a shift in focus from major studios. “International was starting to become of much larger importance to studios [in the mid-1990s] as far as recouping costs as things were getting expensive,” London said. “The international appeal of a star began to play into that.” This shift has been placed in even sharper relief in recent years.

A movie star’s worth is now also tied up in how willing they are to stump for a film overseas. Dwayne Johnson builds box office value, particularly in international markets, by going on the road and relentlessly promoting his movies. Not every actor is as willing or able to do that.

Meanwhile, audience tastes have to begun to change and, most important, become more public. “There’s free information on social media for studios to use to get a read on what audiences think of a particular star,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, told Observer. “Audiences love [Wonder Woman star] Gal Gadot. It’s clear—just go to Twitter.” It’s hard to argue that at least some of a studio’s moves are influenced by moviegoers’ opinions when they are so readily available—and, quite frequently, deafening.

“Fragmentation has become more acute,” London said. “Studios no longer need the most expensive names to sell tickets. They just need an attractive concept.”

In other words, there’s a reason we’re getting our sixth big-screen Batman.

Marvel Recast Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man Avengers 4

So What Is Today’s Definition of a Movie Star?

As we’re seeing with Cavill and Pine, there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to the value of a star. “That is the most complicated metric to figure out,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s part head and part heart—there’s an emotional component.”

He continues, “What does this star mean to the role and what does it mean to fans? The studio has to look at the bottom-line financials, weigh risk versus reward and decide if it makes financial sense. You’re melding the warm and fuzzy side of the equation and the bottom-line dollars, and it’s difficult to reconcile them.”

It’s a particularly tough problem to solve. Some roles are iconic almost entirely because of the actors who’ve filled them—it’s practically unimaginable to envision anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Han Solo (or Indiana Jones, for that matter). Then there are really strong and legendary characters like Jame Bond that switch out actors freely and constantly. Many actors who have become incredibly famous because of a particular role don’t find the same success beyond that career-making turn; almost every Avengers cast member has struggled to rake in big box office bucks for their non-Marvel films. In other words, these roles can define an actor for better and for worse, and so many stars struggle to break free from the property that made them famous. In the 1990s, guys like Will Smith and George Clooney could sachet between tentpole blockbusters and star-driven dramas with relative ease. Moviemaking was more open-ended.

“Ideally, what studios want now are movie stars who match well with their franchises, who complement the qualities of the franchise without overshadowing it,” Fritz said. “Think of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. He embodies that character really well, audiences love him and Marvel pays him a lot of money to do it. Yet he is not bigger than Iron Man, and when he leaves the series, there will certainly be more Iron Man movies with new stars.”

While studios assert that a film’s brand and concept are more important, agents argue that their clients bring enough value to the franchise that the money they’re asking for is less than the damaging cost that starting over with a new star would bring. So essentially, the value of a movie star today often depends less on their broad appeal than on their niche compatibility—it’s about the happy marriage of property and headliner.

In their heydays, Tom Hanks was a versatile prestige actor and Tom Cruise was able to toggle between blockbuster action flicks and Oscar bait. But Chris Evans is Captain America. Once he’s done embodying this role, audiences will hopefully let him be something else too. But right now, fans and studios seem to want only one brand per star.

How Movie Franchises Became More Important Than Their Stars