Twenty years ago, Tom Cruise, the hottest star in Hollywood, took a long-defunct TV series and decided to build a franchise. Five films later, with a sixth on the way, the “Mission: Impossible” series has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. Along the way, such actors as Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Renner have dropped by. But for Ethan Hunt’s last outing, “Rogue Nation,” something interesting happened: a mostly unknown actress named Rebecca Ferguson stole the show. She’s since gone on to appear in “The Girl on the Train” and “Life.”
With a few exceptions, stars such as Cruise are no longer starting the franchises —the franchises are making stars of their actors. Best known for his work as lovable doofus Andy Dwyer on “Parks and Recreation,” Chris Pratt became a megastar by landing the lead in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and then taking over a massive franchise with “Jurassic World.” Now he commands $12 million to headline a film like “Passengers,” which was sold primarily on his and Jennifer Lawrence’s star power.
“Guardians” writer-director James Gunn says when casting the role of Star Lord, he was never pressured to use a big name. “I was only pressured to find the best actors possible,” says Gunn. He then quips, “But I am giving a break to this young actor in the next film named Sylvester Stallone.”
Variety film critic and features writer Guy Lodge concurs that recent years have seen the star vehicle somewhat diminished. “At a time when cautious cinema audiences are increasingly wary of original material, even A-listers need the additional draw of an established franchise or storytelling brand to pull mass audiences to their films,” he notes. “And so we see a Cruise headlining a reboot of ‘The Mummy,’ something that might have been beneath him 20 years ago; ditto Will Smith joining the ‘Suicide Squad’ ensemble.”
And remember: big stars command big salaries. When Chris Hemsworth was cast in “Thor” or Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” they had zero negotiating power. “Why spend extra on big names when the films sell themselves?” asks Lodge. “That, I think, is why we’ve seen studios taking chances on fresher names and letting the movies make the stars, rather than vice versa.”
Where they’ll go from here remains to be seen. “How resilient are these franchise-made stars?” asks Lodge. “Marvel may have made a household name of Chris Evans, but he has yet to prove he can headline a hit outside the superhero universe. ‘Twilight’ gave Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson vast, devoted online fanbases who may post obsessively about their recent forays into arthouse filmmaking, but do they go to see the films?”
But Lodge notes one actor who creates B.O. magic. “One name who does seem able to pull a dedicated audience to a range of non-franchise films is Meryl Streep,” he says. “The viewer’s relationship to stardom is clearly something that has shifted with generations.”