To a certain group of fans, Benedict Cumberbatch is the most important person on Earth. These people — Cumberbitches, as they have named themselves on Twitter and elsewhere — have an active subreddit devoted to the Sherlock star’s exploits; they GIF and meme him on countless Tumblrs. (Have you seen the one about the otters? It’s pretty good.) The Cumberbitches have gained such notoriety that Benedict himself is quizzed about them in interviews. (“It’s flattering, though I worry about what it says about feminism,” he told InStyle. “It’s quite a pejorative term.”) When he was recently denied the American cover of Time (he remained on international editions), the Cumberbitches pilloried the magazine on Twitter.
Time presumably made this decision because a majority of its readers have no idea who Benedict Cumberbatch is. Despite a prominent if spoiler-protected role in the very profitable Star Trek Into Darkness and 3.2 million viewers for Sherlock — plus, of course, the hard work of the Cumberbitches, who tweeted about him roughly 700,000 times this year — Cumberbatch only has a 10 percent awareness rating in America, according to the market research firm E-Score, which provided data for Vulture’s Most Valuable Stars equation. Put bluntly: He is an enormous star on the Internet — outside of that, not so much.
He is not alone. The limit of celebrity Internet fame was a common theme during Vulture’s Most Valuable Stars calculations; many actors who had a demonstrable online presence also had minimal national recognition. This is true of many online phenomena — you can read countless blog posts mourning how Community is watched by almost no one. The cultural echo chamber is not new, and anything can be popular on the Internet: It is large, customizable, and, if you dig around long enough, you can find a weird corner dedicated to just about anything. Or, to quote The New York Times Magazine’s popularity issue: “the concept of cultural popularity has been flayed, hung by its heels and drained of all meaning.” Still, fame is an undeniable asset to actors — sometimes their most important quality — and it figures heavily in the Most Valuable Stars calculation. Again and again in this process, we hit against the divide that a seemingly beloved actor or actress, with a vocal fan base and studio resources, is not recognizable to the public at large.
Take Ryan Gosling (No. 26), walking meme and BuzzFeed’s pet cause. To gauge the online fandom of each star for Vulture’s rankings, Twitter provided Vulture with the median number of daily tweets mentioning each actor over the past year; Gosling is in the top ten of this metric. His studio value (the score that our anonymous panel of execs and producers assigned each actor based on how much his or her casting can boost the box office prospects of a movie in the star’s most reliable genre) is very high, an 8, the same as Matt Damon and Will Smith. He’s never starred in a $100 million movie, but studios are so confident of his talent and fandom that they strongly believe that he can attract more people to his kind of film. (Note that this is all proportional: Gosling doesn’t do superhero movies, but in his wheelhouse — lower-budget complex dramas — he can bring in far more people than would otherwise pay to see the film.) And yet, E-Score polling reveals that less than 50 percent of Americans know who he is. (For comparison, his studio-scoremates Matt Damon and Will Smith are at 73 and 89 percent awareness respectively; most movie stars are in the 50 to 70 percent range.) Gosling’s low awareness is fine for small-budget films like Drive and Blue Valentine, which don’t rely on mass attendance. But if studios think that he is a major figure whose presence (fingers crossed!) may someday drive people to a bigger-platform film, they may be overestimating his celebrity status.
Then look at Jennifer Lawrence, America’s new BFF. She’s an Internet idol, twelfth in Twitter mentionsand No. 3 on the Total MVS list. Unlike Gosling, she is tied to a major franchise, Hunger Games, and has won an Oscar — and yet, surprisingly, she only has 34 percent national awareness. Her movies have proved wildly popular (even the secret rom-com Silver Linings Playbook made $236 million worldwide), but as a known celebrity, she hasn’t hit critical mass. The Internet would find this inconceivable, but it’s important to remember that it is a very big country, and not all of it uses Tumblr. The list goes on: James Franco, who ranks eighteenth in Twitter mentions, has seemed ubiquitous for the better part of four years with his exhaustive and exhaustively commented-upon multitasking, and yet he is still only famous to 39 percent of this great nation. Emma Stone, Josh Hutcherson, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are all under the 40 percent mark, with disproportionately high Twitter scores (and fan pages aplenty) and a high percentage of those who do know them do find them likable. Paul Rudd is considered a beloved comedy staple online, but the low grosses of many of the wider-release movies he’s headlined (Admission, Wanderlust, How Do You Know) indicate a disconnect about his national value as a leading man.
As noted above, being famous on the web is not a detriment; Gosling demonstrates that Internet popularity can help a star land bigger roles or wider coverage, which theoretically broaden his or her appeal. And there can be a qualitative difference in online enthusiasm: Jennifer Lawrence gets talked about for her work and personality, while Andrew Garfield gets attention largely because he was swept up in the fanboy culture surrounding his role as Spider-Man. As a result, his national awareness is a very low 10 percent. (Henry Cavill, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth — none of whom top 25 percent awareness — are also victim to the Superhero Effect.) Celebrities who are Internet-popular on their own, and not because of the social media storm that surrounds a teen franchise or a Joss Whedon movie, are far likelier to break out of their limited fame. But that takes time. Right now, the definition of celebrity becomes very different when you close your Internet tabs and go out in the world to talk with people.
This is still better than the alternative: Ten years ago, Benedict Cumberbatch would have been “that guy” — the random British character actor who shows up in every single prestige movie and whom maybe you read about once, in an end-of-the-year magazine sidebar on best performances. Now your initial interest can lead you to IMDb and a community of other like-minded likers; next thing you know, you’re spending three hours watching GIFs. The upside of the Internet’s bewildering ability to turn small oddities into viral sensations is that fan favorites — like Gosling, Cumberbatch, and golden boy Channing Tatum — have more opportunities for exposure. It may not always translate into legitimate fame, but then, neither did old, analog cult fandom. At least this gives them more of a running start.