What Can We Learn from a New Hollywood MVP List? Franchises Matter, Not Movie Stars

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Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence lands at No. 1 on the new power list

The most famous — and valuable — people in Hollywood today are fictional characters. Today Vulture released its annual ranking of Hollywood’s Most Valuable Stars. Using a formula that weighs hard data like box office numbers and intangibles like likeability, the site determined an A-list pecking order that — inadvertently or not — reflects the monumental shift that continues to reshape the movie industry as actors become more and more subservient to the franchises they headline.

The list’s no. 1, Jennifer Lawrence, is the perfect example of this new era. It’s hard to argue with Lawrence’s star power, but what does that mean, exactly? Lawrence’s biggest role to date has been Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games saga, a massive franchise based on a book with a built-in fan base. While she owned the role from the beginning, it isn’t as if the series wouldn’t have been successful without her. Likewise, the box office success of the X-Men prequels certainly didn’t depend on her presence as the young Mystique.

It’s true, Lawrence won an Oscar for a great performance in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, and she got another nomination for last year’s American Hustle, but each time, she was part of a star-studded ensemble in films that received the support of Hollywood’s award season hype machine. This isn’t to tear Lawrence down at all — at 24, she’s primed to own Hollywood for many years to come. It’s just to demonstrate that we have now shifted into an era where actors, no matter how famous, are less and less integral to the success of their movies.

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Robert Downey Jr. clocked in at No. 2 — but mostly on his Iron Man might

The evidence doesn’t end with Lawrence: Vulture’s second biggest star, Robert Downey Jr., owes his career resurgence to his time with Marvel. When he tried to promote his adult drama The Judge this fall, he was mostly asked about the possibility of a fourth Iron Man movie. The Judge’s box office has been disappointing so far, raising the question of whether or not people want to see a Downey movie when he’s not wearing impenetrable armor and firing missiles and quips with abandon.

Even the biggest names on Vulture’s list have become dependent on the Hollywood franchise machine. Outside of True Grit, Matt Damon (no. 12) hasn’t had a true hit since he left the Bourne series in 2007. And now, after years of swearing off the spy saga, he’s headed back to the well. Johnny Depp (no. 8), who practically printed money for Disney in the mid-aughts, flopped with The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows, and he’s returning to the high seas as Captain Jack Sparrow for a fifth Pirates of the Carribean movie. Tom Hanks, who suffered a string of failures before a modest hit with Captain Phillips, is also set to return to his money-maker Da Vinci Code series. Oscar-winning director and resurgent actor Ben Affleck (no. 16)? Sure, he hit big with Gone Girl this fall (which was based on a best-selling novel). But he’ll also be answering the Bat Signal in 2016.

In fact, the Vulture rankings implicitly acknowledge this new reality, by penalizing Christian Bale (no. 18) for hanging up the cape and cowl and thereby removing himself from the franchise machine. And the list leaves Scarlett Johansson all the way down at 31 because, it seems, being part of The Avengers is not as valuable as having your own stand-alone Marvel movie.

Meanwhile, our new era of leading men have for the most part come up through the franchise machine, from Marvel’s dreamy Chris duo (Evans and Hemsworth) to even Bradley Cooper, who rose to bigger fame on the Hangover trilogy.

There are a few notable exceptions to this new franchise rule, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock. But their staying power feels more a reminder of a time when stars opened movies. Now, it’s movies that create stars, a new reality that isn’t likely to fade away any time soon.

Photo credits: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP