The Rise of the No-Risk Franchise Star

This weekend, Clash of the Titans will either perform to expectations, scoring another victory for high-priced 3-D tickets, or fall short, casting doubt on the future viability of three-dimensional remakes of eighties gladiator movies. One guy who’s not sweating it either way, though, is the film’s star, Sam Worthington. Adequate though he may be, nobody sees or skips a CGI-filled action movie because of the carbon-based hero at its center (a point supported not only by the omission of Worthington’s name on Clash of the Titans’ poster, but also by his identification on this week’s cover of EW: “The Guy from Avatar.”) Titans’ box-office reception can no more disprove or substantiate his theater-filling ability than did the failure of Terminator Salvation or the success of Avatar.

We’re in an era of blockbusters only, but one in which movies are sold by their concepts, effects, or roman numerals — not actors. Studios seemed to have settled on three people to carry all major franchises — Worthington, Taylor Lautner, and Shia LaBeouf — not because of any innate appeal of their own but because they’re constants. Their presence says, “This is a blockbuster. Explosions and familiarity will be had.” And lucky for Worthington, Lautner, and LaBeouf, blockbusters tend to come with enough pre-sold baggage to shield them from blame even if one should flop.

Today’s no-risk franchise actors have read the marketplace and found their niche. And none seem likely to screw it up with roles in any non-franchisable movies that might actually test their appeal. Last month, two small films starring Robert Pattinson (Remember Me) and Kristen Stewart (The Runaways) opened to unspectacular numbers, scotching hopes that Twilight fans would be just as excited to see the pair in movies without abstinence or blood-sucking. But while one disappointment won’t kill their careers, you won’t catch their castmate Lautner — currently signed up for only large-budget franchise-ready action movies like Abduction and Stretch Armstrong — denting his asking price by prematurely making himself vulnerable to a public’s indifference (see also Gerard Butler, who misread the success of 300 as a sign that people wanted to see him in romantic comedies). For now, Worthington, Lautner, and LaBeouf are like Schrödinger’s cats whose real value we won’t know until we take them out of the box and put them in things that can’t be sequelized.

But why would they ever submit to such scrutiny? With studios pulling back on smaller, sequel-resistant star vehicles, today’s franchise-carriers are under less pressure than they would’ve been years ago to prove any range. And with remakes and reboots the only projects being greenlit these days, there are multiple no-risk roles available for seemingly any handsome young actor with green-screen experience and at least one $100 million weekend under his belt.

Sure, Worthington has a couple small films in the pipeline — this year’s The Debt, with Helen Mirren, and Last Night, with Keira Knightley — but by the time they’re in theaters, he’ll have already started shooting Dracula Year Zero. So even if audiences reject him in non-blockbusters, he’ll still be under contract for sequels in as many as four franchises that can’t go on without him. And if Clash of the Titans disappoints this weekend, he can just blame it on someone else during his interviews for Avatar 2.

The Rise of the No-Risk Franchise Star