The Biggest Box Office Stars of All Time Are No Longer Box Office Stars
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The Biggest Box Office Stars of All Time Are No Longer Box Office Stars

By Dustin Rowles | Boozehound Cinephile | January 21, 2013 | Comments ()


At the box-office this weekend, Jessica Chastain was the lead in the two highest-grossing movies, Mama (#1 with $27 million) and Zero Dark Thirty (#2 with $17.6 million), despite the fact that Chastain is not exactly a well-known mainstream movie star (most know her, if at all, from her role in The Help). Meanwhile, the most recognizable face among movies that opened this weekend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, landed at number ten with The Last Stand, which only opened with $6.3 million (while Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg's Broken City delivered a flat $9 million).

To be fair, it's Schwarzenegger's first starring role since he left politics, but then again, Schwarzenegger -- who owned by box office for about ten years (from 1988-1998) had already begun to lose his box-office appeal before he entered politics, which may have been why he left Hollywood. Before becoming the Governor of California, Schwarzenegger's last three films were all domestic failures (End of Days, $66 million; The 6th Day, $34 million; and Collateral Damage $40 million) that grossed less in North American than they cost to make. Moreover, the failure of The Last Stand does not bode well for his next two projects (The Tomb, with Stallone and Ten with Sam Worthington) and several sequels he's currently attached to (Triplets, The Legend of Conan and Terminator 5) may fail to materialize.

Schwarzenegger is not alone, of course, among once massive box-office stars who can no longer open a movie, despite huge name recognition. Take Tom Hanks, the highest grossing movie star of all time, whose last three movies have clocked in at $27 million (Cloud Atlas), $31 million (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and $35 million (Larry Crowne). Likewise, the faltering career of the second highest grossing box-office star of all time, Eddie Murphy, doesn't need recounting. Save for voice work in the Shrek Movies and a minor hit in Tower Heist, Eddie Murphy has been opening duds for years (A Thousand Words, Imagine That, Meet Dave, I Spy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash).

What about Harrison Ford, the fourth highest grossing box office star behind Sam Jackson: Take out Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Ford hasn't had a major hit in 12 years (2000's What Lies Beneath), starring in a string of failures like Cowboys and Aliens, Morning Glory, Extraordinary Measures, Firewall and Hollywood Homicide.

What about number six (behind Morgan Freeman): Tom Cruise. His output, save for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) has been mostly middling (Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Knight and Day) to bad (Rock of Ages, Lions for Lambs).

What about number seven, Robin William? He hasn't opened a huge box-office hit by himself since 1998's Patch Adams. What about Bruce Willis, number nine of all time? He hasn't opened a $100 million movie by himself since Live Free or Die Hard, and if you take the Die Hard franchise out of the equation, his last hit as the major box-office draw was Sixth Sense in 1999.

Will Smith hasn't been the same of late (MIB III, Seven Pounds), Julie Roberts hasn't opened a $100 million as the lead since Erin Brockovich), and even Matty Damon hasn't had a big hit besides True Grit since his last Bourne movie.

What does it mean? It means two things: 1) that many of the old-school box office stars, as prolific as they still are, are being pushed aside by a new generation of stars, but 2) more importantly, stars don't sell tickets, franchises sell tickets. Why is Johnny Depp the only lead actor among the ten biggest box-office draws of all time that's still raking it in? Pirates of the Caribbean. Number three Sam Jackson has The Avengers and Star Wars, while number five Morgan Freeman has had The Dark Knight movies to bolster their draw (likewise for Michael Caine at number 10). The Harry Potter actors have a higher lifetime gross than Brad Pitt; Kristen Stewart has a higher lifetime gross than Meryl Streep; and Robert Pattinson has a higher lifetime gross than Steve Martin.


So, are there any box-office stars left? People that can open a movie based on their star power? Sure there are! Charming Potato, who opened three $100 million movies last year (21 Jumpstreet, The Vow, Magic Mike), none of which were designed to be franchise movies.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • AudioSuede

    The classic Hollywood formulas that make big breakout movie stars aren't the same anymore. The reason Schwarzenegger's movies stopped selling is the same reason Eddie Murphy's did, and Harrison Ford's did: They're trying to make movies that might have worked when they were at their peak, but the viewing public has moved on to other things. And audiences are now waking up to the fact that these actors aren't flexible enough to make a strong variety of movies the way, say, a Robert Downey Jr. can pull off being Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes and the straight man in Due Date at the same time without anyone batting an eye.

    And the reason Charming Potato is so successful is he's actually surprisingly flexible: He can play funny and daffy (21 Jump Street), emotionally layered (Magic Mike), antagonistic (Haywire), gun-toting tough (GI Joe), and total schlocky romantic (The Vow), and he's doing it all despite every expectation of quality working against him. The fact that he's willing to put himself out there in Magic Mike especially (a movie about his real experiences as a male stripper and a not-so-subtle subversion of Hollywood's sexual exploitation of attractive kids for cash) is proof that he's got mileage and talent to go with his abs, and that's exactly the kind of thing viewing audiences want in a big star: Talent. They want to watch good actors doing good work. If it's a special-effects laden blockbuster action-comedy, all the better.

    All of which is to say: I'm definitely digging the Potato.

  • Jim Slemaker

    There is such wide latitude in using the term movie star. If being a box office success is the sole criteria, then is George Clooney a movie star? Or Brad Pitt? Probably not by that definition, but to me Clooney may be the only male movie star left in Hollywood. Why?

    Because he acts like a movie star. He dates beautiful women. He has a house in Lake Como. He looks like a million bucks in a tux. And he pretty much stays out of the TMZ side of Hollywood. Sure, there are rumors that his "girlfriends" are on 2-year contracts. But so what? He fits the role of what a movie star should look and act like. Box office be damned.

  • Guest

    I'm still unable to process how and why the world made Potato a thing.

  • Jill Boniske

    Box office draw does not make a star, any more than being on the bestseller list makes a great book. Meryl will always be a star whereas Kristin will likely fade away.

  • As for Arnold, I'm still holding out hope for "Kindergarten Cop 2: The Reckoning".


  • duckandcover

    Kindergarten Cop 2: Schwarzenegger Hears a Who.

  • dizzylucy

    I think it says more about the "big" movies being made than star power - most of those movies stunk. The stars who mix their career up a bit with smaller, and generally better films, seem to have more staying power.

    Interesting that Sam Worthington's name came up. The guy was the star of the biggest movie of all time, and I probably couldn't pick him out of a line up.

  • Ley

    Someone send that memo to our country - apparently people here still think Billy Crystal and Marlon Wayans are popular. (The theater replaced Zero Dark Thirty with Parental Guidance and A Haunted House)

  • Brown

    So how many movies by the old guard are legitimately good? There's a reason why movies by people like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams haven't been box office hits. Yes, crappy films have lead to huge numbers, but more times than not bad films don't sell. Charming Potato got two out of three positive reviews, IIRC, from the list of three. I doubt many men from the old guard where being asked to be the lead in Magic Mike as well.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I think it might be time for a discussion of what exactly "movie star" means (Channing Tatum and Emma Stone are on their way, Bradley Cooper couldn't crack it); as opposed to box office success without full crossover (Jason Statham); as opposed to successful working actor (Jessica Chastain); or unsuccessful working actor who had star power by association and then was a movie star for a brief moment and then couldn't maintain it and is a bad investment considering her price versus return (Nicole Kidman); and Brad Pitt is still a character actor trapped in a leading man's body.

    I think you're not really a major movie star until you have at least one classic and/or movie that is part of the culture, and sometimes not even then. It's such an ephemeral thing, but mostly one knows it when one sees it.

    I think Charming Potato is here to stay (colour me surprised). He has VERY smart people making sure it happens. Sexiest Man Alive is quite a coup for his publicist and star making network.

    Conversely, when people used to complain about the Jessicas Alba, Simpson, and Biel, I would always say, "you get three movies and you're out". Lo and behold, all three are done. I'm just waiting for Alba's vaunted "return to television".

  • Guest

    Good insights. I'm surprised too by the Potato thing (and not won over in any way). I feel the same way about Cooper--products of PR pushes more than fan followings/desire.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Perhaps an SRL of A for Effort, But You're Just Not (in the Old Fashioned Sense) Movie Star Material

    1. Alec Baldwin (settle your feathers, he's a character actor)
    2. Bradley Cooper
    3. Nicole Kidman
    4. Bradley Cooper
    5. Katherine Heigl
    6. Ryan Reynolds [dodging lobbed objects]
    7. The aforementioned Jessicas
    8. Kate Beckinsale
    9. Naomi Watts
    10. Colin Farrell (nonetheless, my stays just popped)
    11. Taylor Kitsch

    You get the idea. Contributions welcome.

  • Jill

    I see how Angelina Jolie may be a movie star based on looks, charisma, personal life, etc.., but her box office doesn't really hold up either, does it? Would it be wrong to include her on this list?
    In some ways, she is a bit similiar to Nicole Kidman: an actress known for being a risk-taker in her roles (or just loves to get naked-sometimes I can't really tell the difference), but just not able to open a film. Also, her film choices have not always been that great. Yes, we can argue that they're not going for blockbusters in their choices, but how much is Jolie commanding per film nowadays?

  • Mrs. Julien

    She's a movie star. That's why it's so complicated.

  • Guest

    I love that Bradley Cooper is in there twice.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Astute analysis alert!

  • zeke_the_pig

    Well yeah, obviously, potato's always been a staple food. Make it charming and it'll be doubly so

  • ExUSA

    I think there is a larger underlying issue here, if you look at the majority of these movie stars, they're men. Men who made movies to appeal to younger men, particularly teenagers. It's all Hollywood's known how to do for the past 15 years. This same demographic is far more likely to pirate movies, so for them there's no need to go to the theatre anymore.

    The star isn't dead, far from it. The model just needs to recalibrate. Chastain may not be well known amongst young men, no Maxim shoots and all that, but among people who still go to movies, she is.

    If the studios were making movies for people who still *go* to the movies, we'd see a resurgence in star power, no doubt.

    Marketing plans need to be redone and stop trying to appeal to teenage boys. They're not coming back to the theatres, but there's a lot of people who never left, and are dying for quality films to be made again.

  • Idle Primate

    this is a great ideal. That being said, i'm sure the studios employ a great number of people who can demonstrate what is selling. Even from a consumer stand point, i think there are more films in every genre and style than anyone could watch. It is important to remember that a "bad" movie tells as much about people than a "good" movie. why would they stop marketing to teenage boys--they are a big market driver

  • Mariazinha

    I still dont think Charming Potato is the reason these movies made a lot of money... It's a combination of a lot of factors.
    No one actor is the reason for a movie having a high gross. (Except at my house, where Fassbender and McAvoy get all my money if they wish to)

  • Idle Primate

    the whole point of the article is that there used to be "stars" who were all it took to make a film bankable. The thesis (right or wrong) was that stars don't equal box office anymore. i think it would be easy to refute that with just a few clicks.

  • J.P.

    His name is "Schwarzenegger". Please don't call him "Schwarzennegar", because that's dangerously close to the German translation for "black n*gger". Not good.

  • Nope. "Neger" has never been pejorative in Germany in the same way that your n-word was.

  • J.P.

    Of course it has. What gives you that idea?

  • Mostly a lack of coffee when I woke up this morning and replied to your comment.
    Yeah, I see where you are coming from. Growing up I never heard this used as a pejorative, but that's probably because most people were against Turks.
    So I withdraw my objection. ;-)

  • Fredo

    Not a surprise. Schwarzenegger had been having a bad time at movies as he got old and action movies changed from the bombast and brass of the 80s-90s. His brand of "one-man army" material went out of a fashion a long time ago. And that doesn't take into account how badly he's aged. Compare him to Bruce Willis, who's managed to stay relevant by taking on work like Looper, Moonrise Kingdom or Sin City. Arnold never did that.

  • sean

    Arnold CAN'T do that. He for some reason never bothered to learn to speak English very well. Despite living here for 45 years. He also can't actually act. Doesn't mean that I have not enjoyed him blowing things up on screen.

  • Fredo

    His move was to branch out into comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Jingle All the Way). But that only worked as long as he had his "action superhero" persona in effect. As that faded, so did the chuckles from his comedies.

  • Yocean

    Hold an effin second, back up. Did you say Triplet? Like sequel to the one with Danny DeVito? NONONONONONONONONONO! WHo the fuck are they gonna pull in? I bet the third would be a lesbian woman...who is played by....Jane Lynch? Well, that could be intriguing....Ah NO HEL FUCK NO! Kill that project with fire!

  • Kballs

    Nothing like a couple of 60 year old twins with mommy issues finding out there is yet another poor bastard who spilled from the same orifice. Maybe it can be a Quatto thing like Total Recall that grows out of Devito's belly only it is bigger than Devito and starts carrying HIM around instead because ahahahahaha!!!

  • Bert_McGurt

    No no, don't be silly. The third one is going to be Eddie Murphy.

  • ehhhhh

    Was spelling Arnold Schwartzenegger's name wrong a post modern dig on how he has fallen so low that the spelling of his Austrian goobiligook name is immaterial?

  • jenik


  • Fabius_Maximus

    So, what's your reason to spell "Schwarzenegger" wrong?

  • Bigzilla

    Another lazy analysis piece. You're only about 10 years late to the "star power at the box office" story, Rowles. Everybody who follows this stuff has known for years that star power doesn't drive box office right now, franchises do. And counting people like Morgan Freeman, Sam Jackson and Michael Caine as all-time box office stars is a joke. Those guys happened to be in a lot of hit movies. Rarely were they ever the star of them. Nor can you count the Twilight movies as Kristen Stewart hits or the Harry Potter movies as part of the draw of Daniel Radcliffe's star power. It's like saying people went to see Avatar for Sam Worthington.

  • spork

    I'm kind of new to this site, and I missed the introduction of "Charming Potato." How did that nickname start?

  • Remember to check out the dictionary: (not that it gives the back story to that name, just because it is helpful for newbies).

  • Mrs. Julien

    But not especially current [hint, hint].

  • ash

    I think it's because of his name, his face, and the fact that over the past year he has managed to charm the pants off us all.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Actually, it was originally derisive, as in he has the all the charm of a potato, but he has insidiously made us like him and the layer of irony has been removed.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    Actually, the layer of irony was baked and topped with melted cheese and bacon.

  • asherlev1

    I love this comment so hard.

  • junierizzle

    I don't think anyone went to see those movies because of Charming Potato, right?

  • ed newman

    And I don't think people are going to start going to see movies because of him either. He's going to have to continue to be involved with good projects to get on this list. Let's face it-the guy still doesn't have any kind of "brand" or that much good will built up.

    Back in the day Sly (or Arnold, or Eddie, or even Michael J) could push out a bomb or two and still be a big star based on charisma and brand and goodwill. Charming Potato got his name specifically for his lack of charisma, and while 2012 was a nice step toward changing that he has a long way to go.

  • Sean

    saying a movie is a failure two days after it's release is not a fair statement to say. The first Austin Powers movie was not a real box office success, but it was saved by it's stellar home video performance. But to call a film a failure after just two days is absurd, as the reviews for the movie are actually rather decent to good, and the fact that it was going against Broken City, which stars Mark Whalberg and Russell Crowe who both have more box office draw than Arnold, as well as the bad press he has gotten as of late has given some filmgoers a bad vibe about him. The Word of mouth as well as the reviews will probably help keep the film from being a bomb, as many interviews with filmgoers have shown that most were satisfied with the film as a whole.

  • sean

    But the home video market is not what it was. Piracy has killed that. For big movies, or kids movies, there is still a market. Avengers, Brave, etc...those did fine on DVD. Other movies don't have that anymore. This sort of movie will be online in a month, at most.

  • I don't think the Potato Charm will last very long. Maybe another couple of years before the next nice guy meathead comes along.

  • Irina

    He's getting into directing, so my guess is that he'll be the next Ben Affleck. People may disagree now, but we never saw Affleck coming either.

  • Not that I wish him ill or anything. He seems like a nice guy.

  • Kballs

    Figgy hates Charm and Potatoes!!!

  • Mrs. Julien

    But loves goldfish mouths, hedgehogs and Hamm.

  • melissa82

    Goldfish Mouth = Renee Zellweger?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Damien Lewis.

  • A. Smith

    In the case of Affleck directing maybe. But he at least he does have an Oscar so it might have been seen as a scenario, unlikely but at the very very least plausible.

    In the case of the spud, if he does it might surprise since I think the only film I took him somewhat seriously (prior to 2012) was A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

  • Bodhi

    That Kristen Stewart- Meryl news is hella depressing

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