HomeNewsThe A-lister is dead! What’s the future for “stars” in the 21st century?

The A-lister is dead! What’s the future for “stars” in the 21st century?

In recent years, you may have noticed a distinct recurring theme in Hollywood box office failures – movies which would’ve formerly prospered under the reliable magnitude of a popular A-list lead have instead fell short of expectations.

The A-lister is dead! What’s the future for “stars” in the 21st century?

The fall of the Hollywood A-lister

In recent years, you may have noticed a distinct recurring theme in Hollywood box office failures: movies formerly prospering under the reliable magnitude of a popular A-list lead have instead fell short of expectations. Tom Cruise – who once dominated the industry and felt like like a sure thing for ticket sales – has recently led a number of projects with mediocre or even disastrous box-office results.

Take The Mummy, for example. Despite enjoying the biggest global opening figures for any Cruise movie ($169.3m) relative to the production investment, the movie ultimately lost $95 million during its release last year. Months later, American Made opened with just $17 million, marking Cruise’s lowest wide weekend box office since Jack Reacher, which debuted with $15 million in 2015. And in 2014, The Edge of Tomorrow similarly failed to attract U.S. audiences; the $178 million movie made $29 million in domestic sales during its opening weekend.

Will Smith in 'Wild Wild West'

You might be tempted to attribute such box-office statistics to Cruise’s waning star power. However, it isn’t just the former Top Gun who isn’t bringing in the bank he used to. Will Smith – a man who was once so powerful he endeared audiences to pay actual money for the aimless dreck of Wild Wild West – has been experiencing similar issues. In 2013, Smith’s $149 million passion project After Earth made a depressing $61 million at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, his 2015 sports drama Concussion took just $49 million.

And the less said about comedic A-lister Adam Sandler’s pre-Netflix box office goofs, the better. But since you’re here, just know 2012’s $70 million failure That’s My Boy made only $57.7 million and 2015’s Pixels floundered with a sad $78.7 domestic gross on an $88 million budget.  

The Hollywood Reporter commented on Sandler’s “losing streak” at the time, stating that “For years, Adam Sandler was a veritable Pac-Man and one of Hollywood’s most reliable stars in terms of gobbling up and spitting out solid box office grosses. Now, his ability to lure moviegoers is damaged after a string of disappointments.”

You could say that about any of Hollywood’s A-listers, with poor box office sales highlighting they may be the product of a bygone era. Is the Hollywood A-lister over? And what’s next for the “stars” of the 21st century?

The rise of the Hollywood entrepreneur

An excerpt from the book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz looks at the fading power of Smith and Sandler, two of Sony’s biggest A-list stars. Chronicling how the studio built “a strategy” around sustained relationships with profitable stars, Fritz outlines how the respective box-office power of both eroded in the face of wild financial gambles & cinematic misfires.

After a run of box office failures, Fritz mused, “Inside Sony, the conversation was no longer about how to make more money with the stars but how to stop relying on them.” It could be argued the current three highest-earning actors in Hollywood have also figured out ways to make money without relying on the studios. Hollywood’s stars aren’t just wielding their power on screen – they’re also wielding it at the box office, behind the scenes, and within several other industries beyond Hollywood.

Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Vin Diesel are three actors who have built thriving careers not just as movie stars, but as producers of film & TV projects and as entrepreneurs. Wahlberg has a burger business, Johnson has his own ad agency, and Diesel (for a while at least) had his own video game production company.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in 'Ballers'

Beyond this, the trio are also savvy producers for projects of which they aren’t always the stars. For instance, Wahlberg was an executive producer of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Ballers – a show Johnson shares an exec-producer title on too, as well as a starring role. Interestingly, Johnson was also a producer on YouTube’s series such as Lifeline and Logan Paul Summer Saga, while Diesel was an exec-producer on Crackle documentary series The Ropes and upcoming ABC pilot Get Christie Love.

All of which is to say the sort of actors who are currently the biggest box office draws are also busy being savvy entrepreneurs. A-listers of the past would rely on studio support to sustain their careers and bulk out their pockets, but today’s stars (and possibly those of the future) are leveraging their careers with investments.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note the collaborations between the three stars: Johnson & Wahlberg on Ballers and Diesel & Johnson in the Fast and Furious franchise. Are the stars of the 21st century getting wise to the idea that collaborating with their peers is the best way to ensure success?

For now, what’s certain is the Fast and Furious franchise continues to be an unstoppable box-office behemoth and Wahlberg continues to defy box-office expectations with the inexplicable success of movies like Daddy’s Home 2. So if the concept of the Hollywood A-lister is dead, these guys are dancing on its grave.

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Amy Roberts is a freelance writer who occasionally moonlights as a hapless punk musician. She’s written about pop culture for websites like Bustle, i-D, and The Mary Sue, and is the co-creator of Clarissa Explains F*ck All. She likes watching horror movies with her cat and eating too much sugar.


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