How do you measure a movie star? As recently as ten or twenty years ago, it was easy: Just look for the biggest names with the biggest paychecks and biggest box-office grosses. But oh, how times have changed! These days, some of our most famous actors struggle to open a movie, while Hollywood’s hugest successes often feature lesser-known names donning spandex superhero suits. Celebrity has become disconnected from stardom, as top-selling tabloid cover subjects get ignored at the box office. Even those eye-popping paychecks of yore have begun to wane: The days of free and easy $20 million salaries are over, and cautious studios are slashing pay rates in favor of potential (but controlled) back-end profits. In short, it’s never been harder to calculate a star’s worth than it is in 2012, and that’s where Vulture’s 100 Most Valuable Stars list comes in.
With the simplest factors now complicated — for instance, those back-end profits have made it almost impossible for outsiders to calculate an actor’s earnings on any given movie — Vulture created a new algorithm to determine a movie star’s value at the box office: Who helps a movie actually make more money in 2012? This is, inevitably, an inexact science. But the following eight data points cover all aspects of modern stardom, from likability to credibility. (With one exception — which will be explained below — only numbers from the last five years were considered. Stardom can be fleeting, and an actor’s success in the nineties is no indication of how popular they are now. Ask Eddie Murphy.) How to synthesize all this data? Vulture deputized statistics expert Harry Enten, data correspondent at The Guardian, to help process, scale, and prioritize all of these factors and work them into an equation that would rank each actor’s stardom. Note: If statistics bore you, skip to the last three paragraphs.
1. Domestic Box Office. Only movies that the actor either starred or had a strong supporting role in were counted; basically, roles in which they were used to sell the film. (No cameos and no animated films: In too many cases, a star’s presence felt irrelevant to these kid-driven movies, and the actors’ voices are usually dubbed over when these films go overseas. Also, movies by recently anointed stars in a supporting role were discounted if the films came out before the star had a recognizable name, and therefore had no value in its trailer or marketing.) Grosses were included through Monday, July 22, 2012.
To get final box-office numbers for each actor, Enten used a weighted median instead of a straight average (the median being the middle value in a list of grosses), as the average would give an artificial advantage to stars who had one giant, numbers-skewing blockbuster, as with Sam Worthington and Avatar. (Worthington’s straight-up box-office average when including the $760 million-U.S.-grossing blockbuster would be $147.8 million; without Avatar, it’s only $60.3 million. Worthington’s median number, $57.4 million, is a more accurate representation of his box-office power.) As Enten explains, “The median takes care of the outlier problem. It requires an actor to be successful over a slew of films to be considered to have a high median. At the same time, you might have an actor who decides to star in an independent or just had one bad film. An average would weight this film awfully high if, say, the film made $5 million or less. The median ensures that an actor’s box-office worth is based on the majority of their films.” In order to give greater value to movies that an actor starred in as opposed to playing a supporting role before assessing a median, Enten weighted his or her grosses (and, in the Critics’ Score category, Metacritic scores) so that lead roles were counted twice, while supporting roles were only given half a lead’s value. And finally, he gave a small mathematical boost to actors who appeared in the most films, to play down the artificial advantage of those who ranked disproportionately high for taking fewer swings at bat.
2. Overseas Box Office. Studios rarely make a decision about green-lighting a film without considering the lucrative worldwide market, which can multiply a movie’s domestic gross by a large factor. These grosses were weighted in the same manner as domestic box office.
3. Studio Value. Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner asked a panel of five top-level studio execs (who must remain nameless, since they’ll be green-lighting or packaging movies starring these actors) to grade each actor on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how much more gross their casting would add to a project with a promising script in his or her proven wheelhouse — for example, a good romantic comedy for Sandra Bullock or a solid action script for Dwayne Johnson. Their assigned scores for each actor were averaged to determine his or her Studio Value.
4. Likability. How generally positive does the U.S. population feel about each actor? The market research firm E-Poll provided us with the percentage of the public who find each star “likable,” based on the company’s regular polling about attitude toward celebrities.
5. Oscars. While an Oscar win does not necessarily mean that a movie did extremely well (2009 Best Picture The Hurt Locker made just $17 million), winning a trophy means an actor can — and will — forever be advertised as “Academy Award winning/nominated … ,” which marketers consider a valuable imprimatur. This is the only category that used a career-long tally, as there is no expiration date on Oscars when it comes to publicity. For the Oscar score, nominations were given one point, wins two points, and then all eight categories were normalized to a 1-to-10 scale so they could be balanced to come up with each star’s value.
6. Critics’ Score. We counted Metacritic scores of each actor’s movies according to the rules outlined in the Domestic Box Office section. Hence, an actor who doesn’t appear in giant blockbusters but whose movies are consistently well-reviewed might gain value as someone whose presence implies his or her new project is a “quality” film.
7. Magazine Covers. When an actor is picked as the cover boy/girl for a major, non-tabloid magazine (Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, and 29 others were counted), it’s a sign that the public is interested in a way that goes beyond tabloid curiosity and that the actor has the power to move newsstand sales. These are the magazines that a publicist would want their client to be on the cover of.
8. Tabloid Value. Vulture polled three editors of gossip publications, asking them to grade each actor on a 1-to-10 scale based on how much interest readers have in their private lives, whether for salacious details or a wholesome demand for pictures of baby bumps and family trips to the park. (Our panel: Jared Eng, founder and editor-in-chief of JustJared.com; Justin Ravitz, senior editor at USmagazine.com; and Jared Shapiro, editorial director of news and entertainment at In Touch Weekly and Life & Style Weekly.) As with Studio Value, their scores were averaged.
With all the data collected and weighted, the last step was deciding the importance of each factor: Every category was given a percentage value, with all eight values adding up to 100. Vulture and Enten determined that roughly 60% of the formula should assess how well an actor does in theaters, and so we gave Studio Value the greatest importance (it is execs like our judges who are in charge of okaying casting, making their decision both a reaction to box-office power and a referendum on who will keep getting opportunities), closely followed by box offices both domestic and international. The remaining 40% assessed an actor’s prestige and popularity. The former was accounted for with Critics’ Score (most dominantly) and Oscar tallies; these two criteria tempered box office’s pure-number value, factoring in the ever-important talent of the actors as opposed to the CGI spectacle around them. For the latter, we counted Likability (weighted at the same level as Critics’ Score), Magazine Covers, and, at the bottom, Tabloid Value. Jennifer Aniston’s uneasy struggle at the cineplex has always proven that an actor’s ability to mesmerize the general populace with extracurricular activity is not a predictor of their desire to pay to see you act.
At the top of the final rankings, blockbuster sure-things Robert Downey Jr. and Will Smith stand tall, with Downey getting the slight edge with his Metacritic rating (making him a more reliably consistent sell at the box office) and more prolific output; Smith took a small hit for his sabbatical. Relative newbie Jennifer Lawrence seizes No. 16 thanks to her speedy amassing of both high grosses and critical acclaim, while Ryan Reynolds — on whom Hollywood seemed to put all its chips last year — sinks to No. 74, just one spot above the resurrected Sylvester Stallone. Make sure to click on all the stars to read our analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, and our prognoses for their future. (And yes, we too notice a startling lack of diversity in this list, to which we can only say that we do not decide Hollywood’s reality, we only report its numbers.) We’ve also provided some presets that rearrange the list based on different niches and specialties. Click on those to see who has the most international value, who grabs the most attention as a “celebrity,” whom the studios consider the most potent box-office force, and who gets the most respect.
Sadly, some readers will not agree with Vulture’s ranking of Most Valuable Stars. And so we have given you the power to adjust the list to fit your own interpretation of “value” by weighting the categories differently. Think we’ve undervalued the importance of U.S. box office? Crank it up and watch Daniel Radcliffe jump to No. 5, leapfrogging Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock. Or maybe you think that Hollywood values grosses too much, and the true measure of a star is the quality of their work? Max out the Critics’ Score and watch Ryan Gosling vault from 36 to 17. Once you’ve settled on your own list, you can share it on Facebook and see if your friends agree.
We have much more to say about the state of stardom today. Keep checking back in to Vulture all this week for many more insightful features: a top publicist will weigh in with advice on how to build a lasting movie star, while columnist Gavin Polone will give his usual pointed and witheringly honest take on the worth of stardom today. We’ll take a look at the moneymen who calculate just how much a star is worth overseas, and we’ll name the actors on the bubble who have a chance of making the list next year.
But for now, let’s get to the ranking …
Star bio writers: Kyle Buchanan, Amanda Dobbins, Chris Gardner, Amir Kenan, Margaret Lyons, Jennifer Vineyard
Reporting: Sophie Hays, Catie Keck, Timothy Kosinski, Sarah Lawson, Christi Warren