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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Who’s the Biggest Star in the World (Right Now)?

William Goldman is one of the greatest screenwriters of all-time, but he was also a fantastic essayist and one of the most insightful minds when it came to writing about films. His collection of essays, The Big Picture, has been read so many times by me that the pages are starting to break free from the binding. But one of the questions he came back to was: who is the biggest star in the world right now? Almost every year during the ’90s, he tried his best to answer that very question.

For whatever reason, Goldman’s not writing (or at least not publishing) his essays about film and I decided that I would try to answer the question as we wind down the year 2010.  Just like Goldman, I won’t use a ton of numbers or charts and graphs, but I’ll present my evidence as best as I can.

Last year, I think the answer would have been a bit easier.  James Cameron was clearly the biggest star in the world in 2009 and it wasn’t even close. The man released his first film in twelve years and just happened to make a movie that broke every box office record imaginable. It is now clear that any year in which Cameron releases a film, he will be the biggest star in that year. One could make a case that he’s the biggest star of this current year since Avatar raked in most of its dough after the calendar flipped to 2010, but by the time this year ends, I don’t think he’ll still be on anyone’s mind.

As for those in front of the camera, it would be easy to name folks like George Clooney or Brad Pitt. Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds were hits both critically and commercially and it’s reasonable to expect every film to which one of these handsome men is attached will at least make its money back.  People will go to the movies specifically because they hear the names “Clooney” or “Pitt” and that’s becoming increasingly rarer.

If you need evidence of this, check out this weekend’s grosses for The American.  It was the number one film of the weekend, despite the fact that Clooney was the only actor anybody heard of and despite the fact that it’s a deliberately-paced film that most American audiences would usually find dull.  I doubt it’ll have strong legs next weekend, when word of mouth spreads, but the bottom line is that Clooney put butts in seats this weekend. Audiences in this country feel comfortable with Pitt and Clooney, that they will deliver the goods in projects that are worthy of their time and money.
Johnny Depp might want in on this conversation.

I personally think he’s fading as an actor I trust, but Alice in Wonderland still made a ton of money. Although, I don’t know how much if it is Depp and how much of it is Burton and how much of it is the recognizable brand.  Depp certainly didn’t help Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus get  seen by very many people, and while Public Enemies did okay, it didn’t do as well as expected in a cushy Independence Day slot.  The Tourist will be a good test for him, where he’s paired with one of the top female stars out there.

Speaking of Angelina Jolie, could she be the biggest star in the world? She’s certainly one of the most recognizable faces, gracing the covers of magazines on newsstands around the globe. She was the only major draw in Salt and that film has grossed over a hundred million dollars at the box office. Jolie and action is a formula for success, as she had already proved with Wanted. Unfortunately, put her in a serious drama – even one she’s excellent in, like Changeling – and audiences turn away.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, I must make mention of him because I think he was on William Goldman’s list every single year he made it. And the weird thing is that you could probably still put him somewhere on the list. The guy has been a commodity for about forty years already and has shown no signs of slowing, releasing a film every single year. When he actually gets in front of the camera, (a rare sight these days) people tend to show up, even if it’s something as dumb as Gran Torino.

Box office gross of the aforementioned film: nearly 150 million bucks and Eastwood was the only draw. Dude is nearly eighty and he still gets audiences to come out. His next film, Hereafter, reunites him with Invictus star Matt Damon and comes out in the fall.

Matt Damon, you say? Why yes, I did. I’d love to put him somewhere on this list, but the truth of the matter is that while he’s a recognizable face and name and he gives any film he stars in the air of respectability…he’s not quite in the running for biggest movie star status. The Bourne films were cash-cows, of course, but the truth of the matter is that he’s too much of a damned artist to be a movie star.

He’s the kind of guy who gains forty pounds to star in a Soderbergh film, the kind of guy who brings subtlety to his pitch-perfect performance in The Good Shepherd (one of my favorite performances of the last twenty years). He’s the kind of guy who will take time out of his schedule to film cameos in Soderbergh’s Che or Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. He doesn’t seem especially motivated by money or fame; instead it seems his one big desire is to work with as many great directors as possible.

The guy has worked with Scorsese, Coppola, Soderbergh, Minghella, Van Sant, Gilliam, Redford, Eastwood, and has a film coming up with the Coen Brothers. He might be one of the finest popular actors of his generation, but he’s not one of its biggest movie stars.

Damon also worked with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg used to be a staple on this list. You could always put him on it because he’s easily the most famous film director in the history of motion pictures. If you ask any bozo off the street to name a film director, they’ll definitely be able to mention Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately the man hasn’t released a film since Munich (What Indiana Jones film? I keep telling you, it doesn’t exist!).

He’s got a couple of projects on the horizon, including War Horse and Tintin, but I can’t put him anywhere near the top until he finally makes that damned Abraham Lincoln movie. Or, you know, if War Horse is brilliant and makes a ton of money. But he deserves a place on this list, even as just a producer.  Hell, every Transformers movie is a gigantic hit and he’s one of the men responsible for it.

How about the star of that hit franchise? No, not Michael Bay or Optimus Prime, but Shia LaBeouf. He’s only 24 years old and he’s the lead actor in a franchise that has grossed a kajillion dollars (he was also in that Spielberg movie that doesn’t exist and grossed a lot of money). But, come on, we know people weren’t going to the theater for a chance to see LaBeouf. And while Disturbia was a decent-sized hit, Eagle Eye was a disappointment. We’ll see how he does with the Wall Street sequel, but even if it’s a huge success, it probably won’t be due to him. He might be the biggest star in the world in five to ten years, but he’s not there yet.

There’s no natural transition to this one, so I’m going to try not to snap my neck with this segue: Will Smith! What about Big Willie? He’s still getting jiggy with audiences, whether it’s in the atrocious Hancock or the even more atrocious Seven Pounds. It’s actually an amazing testament to his star power that the latter film managed to gross seventy million dollars, despite its subject matter.

I mean, that’s not an easy film to sell and basically they marketed it as “Will Smith…in a movie!” Nobody had any clue what it was about, but the promise of Will Smith drew people in. That’s pretty impressive. But he’s been absent from screens for two years now and Men in Black III isn’t coming out until 2012, so he’s taking a break from his throne.

No, Jaden Smith isn’t where I’m going next.

I don’t know who to blame or  praise for the success of Twilight, so I can’t really put any of those kids or filmmakers on here. I’ll chalk that one up to “phenomenon” and move on.   Same goes for the much better Harry Potter films.

Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s the star of one of the most talked-about movies of the year, Inception, which will end up with around 300 million bucks in the bank. Not too shabby. He’s also Scorsese’s favorite actor and DiCaprio has helped turn Scorsese into a legitimate box office favorite. Or maybe it was the other way around? Unfortunately, he couldn’t help turn Revolutionary Road or Body of Lies into hits.

In the right project, DiCaprio is gold. And Inception might have been more about Christopher Nolan than DiCaprio. I think his turn as the title character in Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic will probably garner some awards buzz, but we’ll see if he can take it to the top of the box office.

Adam Sandler was the answer to this question for a while. But that was back when his movies cost nothing to make and grossed insane sums of money. Now the movies cost more, he costs more and he can’t even guarantee a hit when he’s working with Judd Apatow. Grown Ups grossed about $160 million, but it definitely cost quite a bit to make and market. He’s near the top of the list, but it seems he’s veering closer towards modern-day Eddie Murphy family-movie territory. And that’s a hit or miss world to live in.

Okay, enough beating around the bush, the answer to the biggest movie star in the world? Well, who could it be other than Sandra Bullock? She’s gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly this week despite the fact that she’s got nothing to promote and she wasn’t even interviewed. She starred in two massive hits last year, got an Oscar and could get anything greenlit immediately. She was the star of 2009 and is the biggest movie star to grace a cinema screen right now.

But that’s not the answer. She might be the biggest actor in the world, but the biggest movie star right now (and I would argue, for the last decade) is very simple…


Name me another company, actor, director, etc. in the history of cinema that has never made a film that bombed either critically or commercially. You can’t do it. (Okay, maybe John Cazale?) Every year, Pixar releases a film that grosses a ton of money and tops critics lists. This year, they put out Toy Story 3 and it grossed over 400 million dollars. I don’t think any movie star on the planet can guarantee you half that. Well, except for Pixar.  I’m putting the over/under on the next five Pixar releases at 250 million and I’ll take the over.  I’ll win every time.

Without a doubt, the biggest movie star in the world is Pixar. And it’s not even close.

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12 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Who’s the Biggest Star in the World (Right Now)?”

  1. tyler says:

    Your comments on Depp…come on…he was in the Gilliam film for about 4 minutes. Don’t blame that mess on him. Nothing could have saved that film. Why was no one interested in seeing Ledger’s last film? Public Enemies did not have a prime slot. It was released in the middle of summer. Bad idea. I blame Mann for not using film. It seemed to hurt the story. I enjoyed it, but with another director, it could have been great. Depp never tried to be the “biggest star in the world.” He makes films he likes. The general public likes the franchise films, like Pirates, but he will still do small films with very little thought to box office, and for very little money. As for Clooney, most of his films are flops, but he probably doesn’t care, either. He is another one that makes films he likes.

  2. sheila king says:

    I think DiCaprio also makes films he likes, for better or worse. Hard to pin down who’s the biggest star in the world right now, in my opinion. Many of the best and brightest actors/stars tend to do lots of different things and some make money, some don’t. This year DiCaprio has done quite well, however. Two hits and I noticed that you didn’t mention the other one, Shutter Island. Yeah, it made almost 300 million and for an R-rated Scorsese flick, that’s a bit of a phenom. I think Inception was definitely a Nolan phenom — follow up to The Dark Knight, but DiCaprio had a little to do with it as well, just as he did in Shutter Island. The actor, in his mid 30’s, is just now coming into his prime period. All he really needs to do is something really comedic and I think he’ll actually bring down the house, much as Depp did in the first Pirates flick. He didn’t get nearly the respect he should have for his other less commercial work until then. Speaking of Depp, he may make another splash with the two films coming out soon.

  3. Keil Shults says:

    Tim Burton and Johnny Depp peaked with Ed Wood, over 15 years ago. Burton in particular is getting very boring and predictable. Corpse Bride was good, and Sweeney Todd was interesting, but the rest was a massive waste of time and money. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland may have made a lot of dough, but they were both mediocre films, and I could barely stand Depp in either film.

    My brother-in-law likes to rag on Clooney and Damon, probably because he doesn’t care for their politics, but I certainly hold them in higher esteem than Depp these days (especially Damon, who’s pretty much awesome in everything now). I can see people defending Clooney bashing by saying that he works with a lot of different, respected directors, and tackles a lot of different material. The same cannot honestly be said for Depp, who I was horrified to learn is helping resurrect the unbearable Pirates series. I’m hoping that The Rum Diary is good, and I’ll admit to not really knowing what else he has in the pipeline. But I honestly think Depp AND Burton need to take a lengthy timeout, sincerely reflect on their careers up to this point, and think long and hard about what to do next. It’s the same thing I’d tell Woody Allen if I ever saw him. Actually, I’d probably tell him that I still watch Hannah and Her Sisters once a year, but oh well.

  4. jack says:

    Tyler: Can’t say I agree with you on Depp. Hasn’t made a good film since 1998, with the exception of Blow, which has aged poorly in the few years since it was released. In the last six years he has exclusively made big budget films, that any hack getting paid would agree to do. If he’s one of those actors who just does projects he likes why the hell is he doing another pirates movie? or why did he do Secret Window? or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? or Public Enemies? It’s one thing to say he’s a hack (which unfortunately he has become) but if it is true that he is doing projects he likes then it turns out he just has horrible taste, which I think is less forgivable than simply taking paychecks for a decade.

  5. Diego says:

    Cameron, Jolie and Pixar are the biggest stars in the world.

    Runner up: Deep, Pitt, DiCaprio, Bullock, Spielberg and Eastwood.

  6. rachel says:

    to jack,..THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE WORLD IS JOHNNY DEPP,and you and nobody can’t deny it.And like somebody said he dosen’t care about this kind of things too much,and he does the movies he want,I know that some movies are weird,I know it,but for a good movie you need more than a name,you need a good director,good script,and good actors too,and for me johnny has the all package.I really wish the best for Pirate 4.. SUCCESS!!!!And this is for who wrote this note…the next time put JOHNNY DEPP WITH BIG WORDS,because he deserves it,he is a STAR too.

  7. rachel says:

    Oh…I forgot,and JOHNNY is the only actor has 2 movies with more than $1000 millions each earned around the world,tell me if there is another actor …

  8. Keil Shults says:

    Rachel spent too much time ogling her 21 Jump Street Trapper Keeper and not enough time learning words like “billion.”

  9. Noah Forrest says:

    What I find interesting about Johnny Depp’s career is that he was “underrated” for so long that he became overrated. He’s given some fantastic performances, to be sure. I think ED WOOD and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS are probably his highlights with PIRATES 1 and DEAD MAN close behind. What bothers me most about his choices is that he’s not spending his time on oddball roles like BEFORE NIGHT FALLS any longer. It’s distressing that this “offbeat” actor was suddenly noticed by the rest of the American public and he then abandoned the career that made us movie geeks love him in the first place.

    There will always be fangirls (and boys) who will think he can do no wrong, but unless he gives a truly dynamite performance, unless he actually TRIES again, audiences all over will stop caring. I think we’re seeing the beginning stages of that already, in fact.

  10. EthanG says:

    I’m not sure I agree here. As great as Pixar is, they gross less per year than Dreamworks Animation. Yes Dreamworks Animation usually makes two films per year, but worldwide they are competitive with Pixar on a film-by-film basis.

    Take away Shrek 4 & Toy Story 3 and the last 4 Dreamworks movies averaged $531 million to Pixar’s $582 million worldwide. Is that small difference really worth anoiting Pixar champ with nary a mention for Dreamworks?

    If there was a studio I’d anoint it would be Sony, easily. They didn’t have the most muscular slate this summer; indeed they’ve had a shockingly risky lineup on paper since August 2009. More shocking? The fact it’s paid off with hits like Julie & Julia, Zombieland, This is It, Karate Kid, The Other Guys, Grown Ups, Cloudy with Meatballs, 2012…& over at Screen Gems stuff like Dear John & Takers.

    I doubt any studio turns a bigger profit than Sony these last few years…and because of that, Sony Classics gets to snap up films that would never see the light of day in the U.S. thanks to the shuttering of indies & indie dependents like Miramax & Vantage.

  11. rachel says:

    hey kal shults,yes you right about billions,but all I said is truth ,I love him and he deseves the best

  12. James Pemberton says:

    I am the biggest star in the world.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon