Is the time of the movie star over?

Contemporary Hollywood seems to be relying more on familiar stories and characters rather than big names to attract moviegoers. Are there still stars who can bring in audiences based on his or her name alone?

Hopper Stone/Sony Pictures/AP
'Ghostbusters' stars (from l.) Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon.

What is happening with the American movie star? 

The job title is one that evokes many memorable names – Gable, Hepburn, Flynn – and the dreams of many as well. But the role of the movie star in Hollywood may be shifting. 

When it comes to the financial success of a film, an aspect that is always a concern in the movie industry, studios may be leaning more and more on already familiar protagonists or stories to attract audiences rather than the name on the movie poster.

In decades past, for example, some of the highest-grossing films were movies that were based on original or little-known stories but became recognizable to  audiences because of the stars involved with them, as seen with "Jerry Maguire" (Tom Cruise), "Air Force One" (Harrison Ford), and "A League of Their Own" (Tom Hanks and Geena Davis). Adaptations and remakes existed, of course, but original films with big names could earn a spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of the year. 

Now the top rankings of movies for the past several years are dominated by superhero movies, remakes, and sequels, films for which the advertising campaigns trumpet the characters involved – Spider-Man, Katniss, Han Solo – rather than the actors starring in them.

"Once upon a time, it didn't matter if it was a Western or an adventure or a comedy," Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, says. "People went to see actors. And I don't think that's changed. People still have their favorite actors. But I think the strongest brands in Hollywood are now characters and franchises."

This isn't the case for every genre. Comedies, for example, are a kind of film that features many original narratives. Recent success stories at the box office include the 2015 Will Ferrell movie "Daddy's Home" and the 2015 Melissa McCarthy film "Spy." "Comedies so much depend on individual performances," Mr. Thompson notes. "Regardless of what movie they're in, we know what a Zach Galifianakis character is, we know what a Seth Rogen character is … a Melissa McCarthy character, a Kristen Wiig character."

Someone could be drawn to these films because of the actors involved rather than because they know the story or characters already. 

And it's not to say that there aren't still actors that can draw in audience members. Thompson picks Jennifer Lawrence as one who seems to be popular with moviegoers. 

However, "there's obviously fan bases for everybody, but to competitively open a big weekend movie exclusively based on, you know, the star's name, I think is less common than it used to be," he says. 

Of course, stars still have their place in Hollywood. It seems to be instead that studios are attempting to bring together well-known people (for example, Ms. McCarthy, Kristen Wiig) and a famous property (for example, the upcoming "Ghostbusters" movie, which stars McCarthy, Ms. Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones) for financial success, says Thompson. 

"I think the attempt now, which is always swinging for the fence to be a blockbuster, is you try to load up the property with every possible thing you can, which includes known stars in known franchises," he says.

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