What Makes a Movie Star in 2015? From Brendan Fraser to Chris Pratt

Obviously the “movie star” formula has changed since John Wayne’s multi-decade run as a box office star and even since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign at the multiplexes in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Jurassic World, starring Chris Pratt, had one of the biggest opening weekends in U.S. box office in history. After he shed weight and toned down his goofball persona, Pratt has been on a tear. He starred in 2014’s biggest new franchise blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, lent his voice to the lead character in the hugely successful Lego Movie that same year, and is now also the star of one of 2015’s biggest franchise revivals. It’s hard not to look at Pratt’s recent success and not see him as a new blockbuster movie star – except that Pratt’s box office clout has yet to be tested by time. After all, had these films come out ten years earlier they could have starred Brendan Fraser, whose stock has fallen so much since being a blockbuster lead actor that few would consider him a “movie star” these days. Which brings up a complicated question – what is it exactly that makes someone a movie star in 2015? Because according to entertainment media, box office results are only part of the criteria.

Obviously the “movie star” formula has changed since John Wayne’s multi-decade run as a box office star and even since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign at the multiplexes in the 1980s and early 1990s. But for decades movie stardom reflected an actor’s potential to sell tickets. Actors who could sell tickets were stars; actors who couldn’t did television or were out of the business entirely.

Fraser’s experience was part of the old system of movie stardom. After Universal went to the well one too many times with the Fraser-starring Mummy franchise – 1998’s The Mummy made $155 million at the U.S. box office, then 2001’s The Mummy Returns made $202 million only for 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor to disappoint with a $102 million U.S. take – a non-Fraser reboot of the franchise is in the works. Fraser had two other films break $100 million at the U.S. box office – 1997’s George of the Jungle ($105 million) and 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth ($101 million). But Fraser didn’t star in the lower budget 2003 direct-to-DVD George sequel and his character was written out of the 2012 Journey sequel so it could star proven box office superstar Dwayne Johnson (though Journey 2 did about the same in the U.S., it made much more worldwide). In that sense, outside of the Mummy franchise Fraser was never a box office star in the U.S., where it matters most to studio executives. Take note, Chris Pratt – even being the star of a franchise that grosses more than a billion dollars worldwide doesn’t make an actor a movie star for very long.

Pratt and Fraser followed a similar path to movie stardom by beginning as comedic actors and turning into franchise stars with a strong dramatic pedigree. If you think of Fraser as the silly star of Encino Man, George of the Jungle, or Monkeybone you’re ignoring his more acclaimed dramatic work in films like Gods and Monsters, Crash, or the Quiet American. Like Fraser, Pratt has transcended his once-goofy persona by appearing a variety of non-comedic films, like Moneyball, Her, and Zero Dark Thirty. However, being a great actor has never really had much to do with being a movie star. Three-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis is generally regarded as one of the best actors of the last three decades, yet only one of his movies was ever a U.S. blockbuster hit, 2012’s Lincoln.

In contrast, there is Adam Sandler. The former Billy Madison will probably never win a serious acting award, but he had a string of nearly-annual $100+ million U.S. box office hits from 1998 through 2013 with only a handful of disappointments during that span. Between Sandler and Day-Lewis, it’s not hard to guess which actor a producer would have an easier time making money with.

Naturally the Day-Lewis and Sandler comparison is more unfair than comparing Pratt and Fraser since they serve very different functions in performing. But the comparison does add to that problematic definition of what makes an actor a movie star. Actors like George Clooney and Johnny Depp are considered to be two of the biggest stars in Hollywood and their faces grace the covers of every entertainment magazine. Yet both men have poor box office track records. Clooney’s Tomorrowland might end up being Disney’s biggest-ever box office bomb, and the four he movies he has been in that broke $100 million at the U.S. box office – Batman and Robin, The Perfect Storm, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, and Gravity – can hardly credit their success to Clooney alone (especially Gravity). In fact, the Sony e-mail leak revealed that Clooney wrote an apology to Sony executives for the poor performance of 2014’s The Monuments Men, which Clooney directed, wrote, produced, and starred in.

In the case of Depp, it often seems that it’s actually Captain Jack Sparrow or Tim Burton who are the real box office draws. The only non-Burton, non-Pirates movies that Depp has appeared in that broke $100 million at the U.S. box office were Rango (an animated movie directed by his Pirates collaborator Gore Verbinski) and Into the Woods (which featured Depp in a minor role). Otherwise Depp has had a string of recent bombs in the U.S. – The Rum Diary, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and Mortdecai – that probably make the producers of the upcoming Depp movie Black Mass nervous. Is it any surprise that Deep is currently working on a fifth Pirates film and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland is in pre-production?

Nobody would argue that Clooney and Depp aren’t famous or celebrities or stars. Millions of people around the world are familiar with who they are and what they do for a living. But considering A-list stars like Clooney and Depp have difficulty opening non-franchise films, on one level there’s not much difference between them and Fraser except ubiquitous media coverage. It seems like Fraser doesn’t need a better agent, he needs a better publicist.

The question is even more difficult once movie star actresses are considered. Meryl Streep is obviously considered the quintessential movie star, and with six $100+ million U.S. box office hits and seemingly every acting award ever created on her mantel her credentials as an actress and box office star are rock solid. But what other actresses are in her league? Other actresses with multiple $100+ million films to their credit include Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Helena Bonham Carter, Scarlett Johansson, Cameron Diaz, and Julia Roberts, yet few of those movies feature these actresses in the lead role. Because of the limited lead blockbuster roles available to women, most actresses who achieve stardom do so like Samuel L. Jackson did – being supporting actors in huge blockbuster hits rather than carrying films on their own.

Then again, we live in a time when a celebrity’s social impact is often measured more by their movies on social media and gossip websites than for his or her body of creative work. The fact that Fraser’s peak hit before social media conquered the entertainment media world might suggest why his stardom didn’t maintain its height. But how will Hollywood success be measured in an era when stardom is no longer defined by box office receipts? At the first inkling that box office juggernaut Adam Sandler’s shtick no longer packed U.S. theaters – the three domestic bombs that were 2011’s Jack and Jill, 2012’s That’s My Boy, and 2014’s Blended – Sandler signed a four-picture deal with Netflix. Some have pointed at this as a sign that Sandler’s star has faded. But with Netflix now a standard for exciting and engaging original content, could Sandler be far more head of the game than his fellow movie stars?

Obviously it’s impossible to doubt the movie star status of box office champions like Dwayne Johnson and Robert Downey, Jr. Yet there are plenty of Hollywood A-listers who maintain their status as “movie stars” despite lacking box office clout. So if actors can’t always become stars the old fashioned way by selling tickets, what’s the other way of getting there and, more importantly, how do they stay there so no amount of bombs can take away their star status?

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