What determines a movie star’s value? Twenty years ago, when Hollywood was a simpler, more salary-driven place, you could easily identify the most valuable stars, since they were the ones taking home $20 million paychecks. Today, though, the formula for movie stardom has become far more complicated — and not simply because the salary system has been revamped, with actors regularly eschewing an upfront paycheck to seek a bigger piece of the profits. A host of factors determine a contemporary movie star’s value — including box-office numbers, social-media buzz, increasing foreign strength, and critical respect — and fortunes can change drastically in a matter of months if a star’s passion project flops or a new ingenue takes the world by storm.
With all that in mind, Vulture has collected data in every important metric that measures modern movie stardom, inputting those numbers into a formula crafted with our guest statistician, FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, to determine 2014’s 100 Most Valuable Stars. Ascending to the top of the list for the first time is 24-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, supplanting two-time victor Robert Downey Jr. (who falls down one slot to No. 2). In every single category we use for Most Valuable Stars, Lawrence dominates. She’s got two enormous franchises, The Hunger Games and X-Men, that give her strength and foreign firepower in today’s sequel-obsessed Hollywood, but she’s proved herself in plenty of smaller movies, too, and has the Oscar win to back it up. Lawrence is a proven headline-maker with likability scores that are sky high, and she may be on the verge of a major accomplishment: If this winter’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is the year’s highest-grossing movie — and it’s expected to be, since just The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was 2013’s year-end champ — that will be the first time an actor has starred in back-to-back highest grossing movies of the year since Harrison Ford toplined The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Raiders of the Lost Ark in ’81.
Quite simply, Jennifer Lawrence is the kind of movie star we haven’t had in some time and that many thought Hollywood couldn’t make anymore. For all of those reasons, she sits safely at No. 1.
There is much more to discover in the list, where you can also look at the top stars by genre: Click on the box in the list’s upper left to see it broken out by drama, action, and comedy stars. But perhaps you don’t agree with our definition of star value? Below our featured lists you’ll see sliders in which you can adjust the weighting of the different categories to reveal your own ranking. Think Vulture undervalued the Oscars score? Bump it up and watch Meryl Streep show the young’uns who’s boss. Curious what will happen if you toggle down the box-office scores while bumping up the tabloid value? Suddenly, Ryan Gosling climbs the list, despite not having had a hit in years.
How the Stars Were Ranked: A Guide for Statistics Lovers
Just as Hollywood executives must contend with a rapidly changing market, so must MVS regularly reappraise what gives a star value. The new and updated data collected this year fell into eight different metrics, which include:
1. Domestic Box Office. First, actors’ films released between January 1, 2009, and September 1, 2014, were counted. Only starring or large supporting roles were included; and in the latter case, only if their name or likeness was prominently used to sell the movie, as opposed to small, unbilled cameos. Actors who had not appeared in a film for 18 months or longer received a penalty (like Daniel Craig, who is in the middle of a three-year screen sabbatical); in today’s fast-moving movie world, you can’t simply rest on past laurels.
Enten used a median of an actor’s recent box-office performance to stand as his or her Domestic B.O. number, as an average can be too skewed by one enormous blockbuster. A median — or the middle value in an actor’s box-office tallies — negates the outliers (the most extreme hits and bombs) and lands on a number that more accurately signifies their usual box-office potential. Animated films were counted at half the value of live-action films. A penalty was given to actors who had animated or supporting roles in the vast majority of their counted films, as well as those who have only been in one film in the five-year period. If a significant number of an actor’s films in this eligibility period were from a single franchise, then they were penalized, since they had done little to prove their worth outside that series.
2. Overseas Box Office. For studios, international box office has gone from a nice bonus to the driving reason for a green light; it can often bring in a multiple of a film’s U.S. gross, especially now that China has become a more avid consumer. (And many stars whose continued employment may seem perplexing in America are still big moneymakers abroad.) The Overseas Box Office is determined by the same rules as Domestic, above.
3. Studio Value. To get this telling statistic, we have again polled a secret panel of several top studio executives and producers, asking them to assign the actors a score from 1 to 10 based on how much their casting in a movie in their most proven wheelhouse (like Melissa McCarthy in a comedy, Joaquin Phoenix in a drama, or Jason Statham in an action movie) would boost the project’s box-office prospects. A 10 means “You just tripled your gross,” while a 1 means “If this movie were ever going to succeed, you just ensured it won’t.” The scores were collected, and the median value became the Studio Value.
4. Likability. The internet has two grades for celebrities: the best person ever and the WORST. How warmly the public feels about an actor can affect how eager they are to run out to see one of his or her films. The market research firm E-Score regularly polls knowledge of and attitude toward celebrities, and provided data on what percentage of people find each star appealing. However, an important note on this data: E-Score first asks people if they can identify a star by face or name, generating an Awareness score, and only those who can are polled for that star’s Appeal score. On the Most Valuable Stars list, the Likability score is then arrived at by blending those two figures, but actors with an Awareness rating of below 15 percent were hit with another penalty, since the data suggested they had not yet become a household name.
5. Oscars. When studios are making something more thoughtful than your standard superhero fare, it helps to have a cast composed of award winners, ensuring an extra patina of quality that the trailers will no doubt tout. Unlike the post-2009 numbers counted in the Box Office and Critics Score, here our actors get credit for any wins or nominations over their whole career, since that bragging right never expires. Wins are given two points, nominations one, and then the entire list’s scores were normalized to a 1 to 10 scale.
6. Critics’ Score. Using the same weighting system as Box Office, we calculated the median Metacritic rating of every movie each actor had released from 2009 on. This is meant to credit those actors who become valuable, reliable icons of quality.
7. Twitter Mentions. Social media has become the new watercooler, where buzz can make or break a movie on opening weekend. Twitter representatives counted the daily mentions of each star over the last 365 days — including all the articles and blog posts tweeted about said star — and then supplied Vulture with the median number.
8. Tabloid Score. Once again, Vulture asked three editors of gossip and entertainment sites to assign each star a 1 to 10 value based on how interested their readers were in reading about them — whether because of lurid scandal, baby bumps, or just because they like to ooh and aah over pictures of them having lunch. Essentially, this is the actors’ click-bait rating, an average of all three editors’ scores. This year’s panel: Whitney Jefferson, celebrity editor for BuzzFeed; Marc Malkin, senior editor at E! Online; and Justin Ravitz, deputy editor for USmagazine.com.
Consider each of these categories a share of total “star value”: We then distributed the shares by importance, so they all added up to 100. We largely followed last year’s distribution model, with some modifications: As box-office performance is the driving force behind Hollywood, Domestic and Overseas Box Office remain at 15 percent each and Studio Value stays at 30 percent. The remaining 40 percent measures stars’ popularity and prestige, with Likability warranting 12 percent, Critics’ Score and Twitter Mentions at 8 percent, Oscars at 7 percent, and Tabloid Appeal at 5 percent.
And now that you know how it all works, let’s get to the list.