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Is Hollywood star power a thing of the past?

Do we even have movie stars anymore?

Real movie stars?

I mean, obviously we have actors in films.

But it isn't quite the same as 20 or 30 years ago — though I guess we still have some of the same actors from that long ago. The first “Mission Impossible” came out in 1996 and Tom Cruise keeps making sequels, which people keep paying to see, which seems pretty impossible to me.

I mean that we’re losing the certainty that people will go see a movie based solely on a specific actor being in it. For a long time, that was an effective angle Hollywood played to sell movies. They'd try to attach Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson or Julia Roberts to a film to get interest in it. Hollywood wasn't just signing them on for their ability to act or do stunts or look good, but for their marketing power.

This went way beyond just putting an actor’s name on a poster, but also depended on them going on talk shows, doing interviews to sell the project. It was all part of the machine.

I remember when Tom Cruise was such a big deal in 2005 that he completely stole all the media attention at the premiere of “Batman Begins,” a movie he wasn't even in. Cruise just happened to be dating one of the stars. Maybe Cruise’s appearance was just a ruse so that Batman could sneak away unnoticed.

But now we're in franchise film mode.

The biggest movies are based on comic books or sequels of existing things, from “Avengers” to “The Matrix” to “Fast 9.” It’s all reboots and prequels and adaptations. Sure there are notable actors in some of these movies — but is anyone going to see the new Gal Gadot movie, or are people watching “Wonder Woman 1984” to see, you know, Wonder Woman?

It’s pretty obvious that, today, the character matters more to people than the actor playing them.

These franchises do need to be sure they don't miscast, but the bigger push is the brand overall. Almost nobody went to see Angelina Jolie’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” but her upcoming “Eternals” will probably do well because it’s a Marvel movie and has exploding volcanoes, winged demons and guy who shoots Godzilla-breath from his eyes. Just about every Chris Hemsworth vehicle bombs at the box office — except when he's Thor. The importance of talent and fitting the character for films in general clearly matters, but the idea of a "movie star" having power to draw crowds to other movies, that has diminished.

The next generation of Hollywood can't rely on something like that returning.

None of this is to say we don't still have star power in other ways. There are other places where stars draw the attention of our eyes, meaning social media and interviews and so on. In a weird twist, the folks in charge of studios now use the cast of the Avengers movies to promote Jimmy Kimmel, rather than the other way around.

Here’s one other example.

The shaky success of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn has elevated the box office returns of those movies because the social media community rallies behind her. The aftermarket of films is different, clearly, because DVD sales are not what they were. Streaming numbers can be held in secret. In regards to Robbie, studios clearly recognizes there was something there and gave her three films as Harley and have allowed rumors of a fourth.

So audiences clearly love some actors’ takes on certain characters. It becomes pretty clear which versions have staying power and which don't. People hate the idea of seeing someone play Gandalf other than Ian McKellen, since he is such a good actor, was well cast and did a great job. Hitting all those marks is important for such an iconic role. The studios cannot just let the strength of the brand carry the project. When the right fit is there it strengthens the connection, but mostly only to that particular performance.

The fact is, the landscape has changed.

People are not flocking to go see Hugh Jackman movies in the same way they once went to go see Tom Hanks. Hanks had a much more consistent draw in the 90's than Jackman did in the 2000's. Though for a long time Hanks didn't do multiple portrayals of any one character.

Well, not in live action, anyway.

Hanks did fall into franchises eventually when “Toy Story” — and eventually “The DaVinci Code — got a bunch of sequels. Still, his four times as Woody and three times as Robert Langdon is a lot less than Jackman's nine times as Wolverine.

So people didn't flock to see Jackman in "Kate & Leopold" as opposed to Hanks in "You've Got Mail" (sorry Meg Ryan...). Some characters work really well despite never getting sequels.

People love them from just one film.

That's just not allowed anymore, of course, so Hollywood will eventually find a way to make a “Forest Gump vs. Wolverine” movie.

And it will make a billion dollars.

Oliver Graves is a stand-up comic and award-winning columnist. “Oliver’s World” runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. FInd out more at OliverGraves.com or on Oliver’s Facebook page.

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