Why Movie Stars Still Exist Despite Their Lack of Box Office Appeal

By  · Published on May 13th, 2016

Stardom has never really been about theatrical draw.

There’s a new movie out today led by George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and it’s not likely to be a big hit at the box office. So, next week we’re sure to get another round of articles on the death of the movie star. But even if Money Monster performs poorly in its opening weekend, and even though there’s a Tom Hanks movie out in theaters right now (A Hologram for the King) and most Americans don’t even know about it, there’s nothing to be alarmed about. Clooney, Roberts, and Hanks are still the biggest movie stars in the world. And in this country. They will be until they die, probably.

What makes someone a movie star has nothing to do with box office draw. It never really has. Sure, the industry has always seen it that way, because they have to think in terms of business and money and they need to analyze the factors of success, as much as they can try to prove them. And yes, there have been correlations made throughout film history between certain names and box office performance, especially in the golden olden days. Quigley’s annual exhibitor-polling “International Motion Picture Almanac” was fine evidence of star appeal and its apparent draw for 80 years.

And today we still have all kinds of bankability indexes and other mumbo jumbo, much of which tells us Samuel L. Jackson is the highest-grossing actor because he’s appeared in so many hits (in that case, Stan Lee is another one of the biggest movie stars of all time). But unless any individual leading actor or actress has a completely consistent performance record, it’s difficult to trust that names and faces are such a trusted selling point for moviegoers. It can be for some fans, but if the majority doesn’t follow a star to everything he or she is in, what is their worth?

Well, a lot, actually. It’s just that now the value isn’t as visible in ticket sales. Clooney and Roberts being movie stars means that when Money Monster is eventually on TV, more channel surfers will tune in because of their on-screen appeal. Likability for these people translates to watchability, in a manner not associated with consumer spending so much as consumption of the movies and spending time with familiar faces. That’s why Adam Sandler, though not a consistent box office draw for theatrical releases, is doing very well with his movies going direct-to-Netflix.

As will many other stars heading to the various other subscription VOD platforms. Old Hollywood worked in its own way because of the studios’ assembly line production model and the exclusivity of the cinema, which was popular in general. Today, people watch movies differently, but they still like stars. They still prefer movies with recognizable actors they already know they like. It’s just that now their choices are a click away by remote control and seemingly free through ease of availability instead of being only found down the street in the theater.

The only problem for the concept of movie stars today might be with the creation of new ones. How does Jack O’Connell, who is better than both Clooney and Roberts in Money Monster, get to their level? He probably won’t ever be as likable as them, especially if he plays characters that are too different from one another. But currently there is potential for torch-passing. Not unlike what’s being done with franchise characters via legacy sequels, the older stars draw eyes on movies that also feature young actors who will become familiar enough for viewers to later be primarily drawn to them.

And the big movies that continue to dominate theaters and keep the moviegoing experience alive – those franchise installments where the box office draw is the IP itself – they do also help to create the human stars of the future. I disagree with comments made this week on the Fighting In the War Room podcast (one of the inspirations for this piece) claiming Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are not true movie stars because they can’t open movies where they’re not playing Thor and Captain America. Their fame still surely contributes to home viewings of Blackhat and Snowpiercer where such movies would go totally unwatched without their presence.

The Movie Star (1910–2012)

Just as it’s been forever, stars are also made or at least maintained through public notoriety. A lot of people pay more attention to gossip, fashion, talk shows, and celebrity culture in general than to the movies these actors and actresses (and other famous figures) appear in, but it keeps them in the minds of these casual viewers for when they do stumble upon a movie on cable, Netflix, etc. with those known names and faces. Tuning in because they recognize an actor they know from People magazine is no different than following them from the last movie he starred in. But that’s nothing new.

Money Monster may not do as well as the previous on-screen pairing of Clooney and Roberts (Ocean’s Twelve) or the movies of their respective peak years as supposed box office draws, but it would never have gotten made with nobodies in the leads. And not just because there are foreign markets where big names still seem to matter. It’s because they are stars and people will watch a movie with them in it. If the fans choose to wait until they don’t have to pay to do so, that’s nothing to do with the duo not being stars. It’s to do with that specific movie not being a big enough box office draw.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.