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Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II.

The movie star. A term synonymous with a person with the ability to work almost as a one-man show in a vehicle that they have developed to link to their movie persona. Jimmy Stewart is the nice guy, John Wayne is the cowboy, Harrison Ford is the rugged individualist hero and Tom Cruise is an action star.

Starting with hits like Top Gun or Days of Thunder before going full-force into Mission: Impossible where he not only created a franchise, but a brand. Cruise didn’t dive head first into action pieces initially after the success of Top Gun. Some of his hits aren’t actiony at all, like A Few Good Men and Jerry Maguire but in the most recent time (specifically since 2000), Cruise has turned into an action star.

Since 2000, Cruise’s filmography has consisted mostly of action fares. Starting with Mission: Impossible II in 2000, Cruise went on to star in Minority Report, Collateral, Wars of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, Knight & Day, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and most recently Edge of Tomorrow. Not that Cruise hasn’t thrown in a Valkyrie orVanilla Sky in there every once in awhile, but the headliners are his action pieces.

But since 2010 (and the domination of brand names, namely superhero films), Cruise has struggled to have a hit outside of his own brand.

Cruise biggest hit ever was Top Gun in 1986, which grossed $382 million. Since 2000, he has had three films in his top 10 box office grossers, with two of those being Mission: Impossible films and one being a Steven Spielberg one. Begging the question: Have we lost movie stars, in change of brand franchises?

In 2008, Marvel released Iron Man, which led to Thor, Captain America and eventually The Avengers, going on to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe that controls the blockbuster landscape today. The idea of the “brand” or the “franchise” isn’t a new notion. For instance, Tom Cruise helped to shepherd one of the more successful recent franchises in Mission: Impossible. But with branding becoming more important because of the success of Pixar, Disney, Marvel, DC, X-Men, Spider-Man, Dreamworks, etc., is there any room for movie stars?

Sure, they occasional star like Jennifer Lawrence or Melissa McCarthy is able to draw in some viewers for their latest films but is Lawrence strong enough to absolutely lead a film? Her highest hits to this point are the Hunger Games movies and X-Men movies. McCarthy has been a part of un-branded movies such as Bridesmaids and The Heat but is there a window? Will she be able to do it all on her own this year with Tammy?

For Cruise it has been a steady decline. Easily the most consistently working star since the 2000s, Cruise has struggled with finding a hit since 2010. Like I mentioned before, his hits have been part of a brand but his other films that he has had have not been able to muster a top 10 box office return.

2010: Knight & Day – $76m, #45 in 2010 (behind Yogi Bear, Book of Eli, Robin Hood, A-Team)

2011: Ghost Protocol $209m gross, #7 in 2011

2012: Rock of Ages – $37m, #84 in 2012 (barely above Step Up Revolution, That’s My Boy)

         Jack Reacher – $79m, #38

2013: Oblivion – $84m, #41 in 2013 (behind Lone Ranger, Elysium, and Epic)

2014: Edge of Tomorrow, $28m (domestic) and $111 (foreign, opened #3 on domestic box office

Cruise has demonstrated that while he has turned in solid performances, such as Edge of Tomorrow, the box office is not translating for him unless it is a brand movie. While Cruise brings a similar action persona to all of his film, his character Ethan Hunt is so synonymous with the Mission: Impossible franchise that it is hard to say that it should translate easier to other vehicles. The same could be said about Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones or Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminator, they are meshed into the franchise making it hard to distinguish or gauge if the success with translate if you put them in a separate film.

But it isn’t just Cruise falling, some of the giants of the 2000s have found no success since 2010. Will Smith brought in $551m with Independence Day in 1996, followed by such hits as I, Robot, Pursuit of Happyness, Shark Tale, Hitch, Hancock, Men in Black II, I Am Legend during the 2000s. But since the brand/superhero explosion of 2010, Smith has yet to have a hit within his top 10 box office grossing movies. Men in Black III was #14 on the box office list for the year, but is a brand synonymous with Smith like Mission: Impossible with Cruise. Other than that, Smith had After Earth, which ranked 59 for 2013.

A more productive recent star is Johnny Depp, who made his mark on the box office through the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Since 2000, Depp has had eight of the films in top 10 grossing list. But that list includes all of the Pirates movies, two Tim Burton films (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Rango, and Public Enemies.

Depp is a different case than both Cruise and Smith because like Cruise he has been incredibly successful past the 2010 mark, something Smith couldn’t do, but that was also for brand movies. Where Depp begins to dip is of late when his complete-focused Johnny Depp star vehicles like Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, and Transcendence have all gone on to flop, starting in 2012. Depp’s fall more correlates with Cruise’s, not only in box office terms but also according to the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, which lists both of them having only one not rotten film since 2010 (UPDATE: Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow is not rotten right now so that gives him two).

Is this the complete end of the movie star with a shift to the name brand (i.e. Disney, Marvel, Young Adult series) or are some stars still capable of drawing people in? That could be the case for Angelina Jolie, who is currently enjoying the success of Maleficent to the tune of $336 worldwide. Jolie hasn’t been all over the screen like Depp or Cruise since 2010, with only four credits to her name (Salt, The Tourist, Kung Fu Panda 2, Maleficent) but she seems to still have the draw.

Some of the success of Maleficent could be linked to Disney as a brand but Jolie showed, through many reviews, that she was the leading factor. You could say the same for Depp and The Lone Ranger, a nostalgic property that was also owned by Disney, that didn’t pan out or Cruise with Rock of Ages which he somewhat headlined and was banking on nostalgia and popularity.

The movie star may not be dead but it is surely facing extinction. The brand is what is driving Hollywood with the continued success of Marvel movies, Hunger Games movies and the idea of playing to nostalgia. Hollywood is aiming at playing to the nostalgia of the adults taking their kids and to the adventure in kids with young adult novels. A name on the top of the poster isn’t going to be the only contributing factor to bringing people into a movie but the build-up and the pageantry around the film should help to sell.

Much like Cruise’s latest character in Edge of Tomorrow, he has seemed to die and re-started multiple times but how much longer until the power is going to be gone and he is left with one last hope? It may not be now for these stars but it could be down the road.

Interactive chart of Tom Cruise’s box office numbers over the years

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