Marvel, 'Star Wars,' 'Harry Potter' and more: Why the movie star no longer shines as bright as the franchise

Russell Crowe is Hollywood royalty. Or at least he used to be. He’s got an Oscar under his belt and a string of critically acclaimed hit films — “L.A. Confidential,” “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” —  on his resume. But does he have the star power to open a movie?

Not anymore, judging by his most recent box office. His latest film, “The Nice Guys,” opened at No. 4, beaten by “The Jungle Book,” “Captain America: Civil War” and, yes, “Angry Birds.” Even Will Smith, who drew audiences around the world for films such as “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” released two films last year (“Concussion” and “Focus”) that together barely topped $200 million worldwide.

Not long ago, a movie star could drive a film’s performance, deliver an opening weekend and drag it over the finish line. What happened? 

Simple: Hollywood has shifted from a star-based economy to a character-based economy. The actor at the top of the credit block has come to matter less than the name of the character or the franchise in the title.

The shift was triggered by the increased value of the global box office. From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, the domestic box office was all the studios cared about and actors were paid in accordance with their ability to put movie-goers in seats. When a star got paid $20 million — a threshold first broken by Jim Carrey for 1996’s “The Cable Guy” — it was because he or she could deliver a $20-million opening weekend. The cream-of-the-crop actors could travel the world and gin up excitement, actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Smith, among a few others.

But as more and more markets opened — the Middle East, Latin America and most importantly China, whose annual box office has swelled from $1.51 billion in 2011 to $11 billion in 2015 — those audiences, more than a billion people who’d been sheltered from American media for generations, responded less to specific actors and more to characters. To intellectual property.

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“The international market looks and says, ‘It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — we want to see it.’ And that’s it. The brand is everything,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “Look at ‘Warcraft’: it was decimated by the critics here and it didn’t open that big, but who cares if at the end of the day you’re making tons of money in China and the international marketplace?” 

Today, characters bring all the boys and girls to the box office. Is Daniel Radcliffe a movie star? Unclear. But “Harry Potter” is. Zoe Saldana has made 25 movies with a combined gross of more than $5 billion — but $4.4 billion of that came from “Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” or the “Star Trek” films, movies in which her skin was a primary color, her character was in space, or both. 

Looking at the box office for films like “The Soloist” ($38.3 million) and “The Judge” ($84.4 million), both made after “Iron Man” kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no one wants to see Robert Downey Jr. as much as they want to see Tony Stark. The latest Marvel film featuring that character, “Captain America: Civil War” has pulled in $1.1 billion so far in the global box office receipts.

As such, the star math has become heavily weighted toward profit participation instead of upfront salary, the idea being that since audiences are turning up more for the IP than the celebrity, the studios will spend their money on spectacle and give the actors a taste of the money in success.

There are of course exceptions: According to industry sources, actors such as Dwayne Johnson and Downey can still command $20 million to $25 million for “The Fast and the Furious” and Marvel movies, respectively. Similarly, Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Hart have proved to be the rare stars who don’t need franchises to deliver.

“There are certainly international movie stars who show up in various territories around the world and they’re mobbed by adoring fans,” said Dergarabedian. “I don’t mean to diminish that. But if the concept is king in North America, it’s tenfold that in the international marketplace.”

And Hollywood, as ever, is committed to trying to create new stars for people to get excited about. Hence the parade of Next Big Things like Taylor Kitsch and Jai Courtney and Armie Hammer and Garrett Hedlund and Robert Pattinson

Sometimes it works: Jennifer Lawrence has been able to channel the box office power she amassed by playing Katniss in “The Hunger Games” saga and Mystique in three “X-Men” films (and counting) to the Oscar-friendly movies she makes with David O. Russell. No actress but Lawrence could push a tiny drama like “Joy” to a $17 million opening weekend.

Then there’s Chris Pratt, plucked from TV’s “Parks and Recreation” to star in two of the biggest hits of the past couple of years: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World.” The success of those movies didn’t rest on his shoulders. No one was coming to see Pratt, though audiences clearly responded to his brand of amiable charm. They came to see dinosaurs try to eat him.

Whether Pratt’s marketplace magnetism is enough to justify the reported $10 million he got to star in Sony’s upcoming interstellar romance “Passengers” remains to be seen. But his costar, Lawrence, reportedly pocketed a cool $20 million — because in the eyes of moviegoers, she’s still the girl on fire.  

That leads some to say the death of the movie star has been exaggerated. 

“Stars still matter in Hollywood, possibly more than ever before,” said Stephen Ujlaki, a producer and dean of the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television. “Big event and franchise movies with big budgets need to attach a major star to protect the already hefty investment they are making. The reality is that star power helps audiences cut through the clutter of an endless stream of product.”

But by and large, when you hear about big money being paid from the studios these days, it’s not to woo movie stars into their fold, it’s for NBC/Comcast to buy DreamWorks Animation — so they can get their hands on “Kung Fu Panda” and “Shrek.” (NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke told investors at the Guggenheim Partners TMT Symposium on June 14 that one of his chief priorities was to, along with Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri, “figure out how to creatively resurrect ‘Shrek.’”) 

When Disney pays billions of dollars for Pixar or Lucasfilm or Marvel, it’s not for the infrastructure of the companies, or even the creative personnel, it’s for Buzz Lightyear, Luke Skywalker and Captain America.

So which characters and by extension which franchises are worth the most? We crunched the numbers, starting with the worldwide box office figures for series and franchises that have at least three installments and are still ongoing. (Hence, no “Avatar” or “Lord of the Rings.”) Then we factored in other criteria, like longevity (how many could you conceivably make?) and merchandising potential (does anyone want toys?).

The result: our first Franchise Power List.  

READ: The 25 Most Powerful Film Franchises in Hollywood 

Staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

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