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.