In 2015, any young actor or actress who wants to be front and center of public perception angles to get him- or herself cast in a mega-franchise, preferably one based on a preexisting property that skews young and genre. It's what you do: The popcorn blockbuster to get your name out there, maybe another one. Then an indie or critically-acclaimed film to establish your acting cred. Then back to a big studio film. The in-between films are what establish an actor or actresses' credibility, but it's the blockbuster franchise that launches a career. It's as sure a path as anything to success, with a few exceptions.
But it wasn't always like this. Outside of a very few true movie stars, getting your start in genre franchises virtually guaranteed having difficulty building a diverse and respected movie career, right up until the turn of the 21st century. It was exceedingly rare to see actors moving fluidly from genre blockbuster to arthouse film. “Serious” actors stuck with serious directors and franchise actors stayed in that realm, with very little crossover. The world's most beloved and enduring franchise provides no better example.
In May of 1977, a little-known film called Star Wars hit theaters and the landscape of Hollywood was never the same after. The release of Star Wars captured the public zeitgeist in a way no film ever had before, spawning a new obsession, a new religion for moviegoers who had never seen the like in a decade still stepping out of the bloody shadow of the Vietnam War and whose movies had, to that point, been dominated by religious horror, gritty street dramas, and farcical comedies. From that point on, pop culture was forever, profoundly changed for the better.
For the then relatively unknown cast, their careers were also profoundly changed. But not, it has been said, in ways that were entirely welcome. The "Star Wars curse" has been a decades-long, persevering idea, with The Hollywood Reporter even revisiting the story just this past March. And though it seems outlandish to paint the world's most beloved franchise as a career killer, the facts back it up. Out of the three main cast members, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, only Ford has had a career that truly fulfilled the potential of A-list, superstar status.
Even then, one might argue that it took years for the actor to stop seeing "charming but selfish rogue" in the character breakdown of every audition script he was handed through the mid-80s. It wasn’t until 1985’s Witness that he earned some credibility for being in a “serious” role; the five films he did before it were all popcorn franchises or sci-fi.
Let’s compare it to the modern day Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably this generation's Star Wars in terms of influence and impact. Actors and actresses cast in the MCU have not only not felt any amount of backlash from being in the franchise, their careers have generally thrived in the aftermath. Where Star Wars killed careers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only launched them.
In a post-Avengers career, Chris Evans has diversified his options, and can now add “producer” and “director” to his titles, along with a variety of other roles. Anthony Mackie currently has five different movies in various stages of production under his belt. Clark Gregg, thanks to his turn as fan favorite Agent Coulson in the MCU, has ridden the wave of fan adoration right into his own television series. Scarlett Johansson has simply done it all: Critically acclaimed films, voice work, toplining blockbusters, and more. And Chris Pratt’s career is experiencing a rise as this generation’s Harrison Ford.
Lest one think it’s only the MCU that has successfully launched careers, it’s worth looking at how the careers of other modern franchise stars have panned out. Of the ten actresses on Forbes’ list of highest-paid actresses of 2014, six of them had experienced a true career launch (or resurgence) thanks to having been a part of either a comic book or young adult franchise.
Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Emma Watson are bona fide Hollywood “it” girls. Daniel Radcliffe has managed to take his Harry Potter success and parlay it into a critically-adored career, while Liam Hemsworth is starting to be the go-to young guy for action movies.
To understand the shift, one has to take a look at how far the studio system has moved from where it used to be in the last decade, and even further in the last three.
Consider the state of the box office the year Star Wars was released. Movies then didn’t rely on the opening weekend haul with the desperation they do now; films often stayed in theaters for months if not the entire year. In 1977, 17 movies took turns trading places to take the number one box office spot. Of those 17 films, only three (The Enforcer, Airport ‘77, and The Spy Who Loved Me) were sequels. Those three movies collectively grossed just over $24.5 million in the weeks they held the number one spot.
In 2014, 35 films held the number one spot. 12 of those were sequels (save for Guardians of the Galaxy, which was still part of the larger MCU). The number is even more striking if you consider the fact that at least half a dozen more films were virtually guaranteed sequels unless they spectacularly failed, of which chances were slim. In their combined time in the number one spot, the dozen sequels grossed 1.2 billion dollars. Even considering inflation, that is an astronomical change in just a few decades.
This seismic shift in the studio system was accelerated due the collapse of another industry entirely. When music became digitized and Napster swept the country in 1999, suddenly, the landscape of the music industry was irrevocably changed. In less than a decade from the creation of peer-to-peer file sharing, the entire structure upon which the music industry had operated for decades had collapsed. Movie studio executives watched this devolution closely, realizing that the same issues that had taken down the music industry could very well do the same to movies.
While studio execs were busy watching the music industry caving in on itself, movie distribution channels were also proliferating and changing. The coveted young, moviegoing demographic no longer had to rely on movie theaters and network stations to get their entertainment; they were getting it from YouTube, Netflix, and other alternative sources.
And one last thing happened right at this critical time when Hollywood studios were desperate to attract and keep the interest of its audiences: geek culture absolutely exploded. It had been growing in popularity for years, but when the legendary power of Disney threw its weight behind Marvel’s marketing machine, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became an absolute juggernaut. Other studios quickly scrambled to keep up, because the questions of how to attract audiences and adapt the studio system to modern times had been emphatically answered.
But with studios pouring their money into creating sprawling series and fantastic shared universes, there’s not a lot of bank left over for studios to dispense to smaller films. Hollywood is playing it extremely safe, unwilling to invest money in riskier passion projects and films not based on preexisting properties with a built-in fanbase. Non-franchise filmmakers need an ace, some sort of guarantee to the studio that there will be a hook for audiences before the project is greenlit and checks handed out.
Enter A-list, blockbuster talent. Many critics have bemoaned the state of the industry, lamenting that the age of the movie star is dead, but that’s simply not true. It’s not that they're dead; it’s that the characters they play often eclipse them now. But, unlike in decades past, this isn’t a bad thing. The revered status of a fictional role only adds to the status of the actress or actor playing it. They are more bankable in every way, because they are both known to a wide audience and embraced by it. Studio heads no longer see someone who got their start in a fictional, genre movie as a risk because audiences will strongly associate them with that role; instead, they count on it. This is the new, fan-driven reality of Hollywood.
And the formula is working. It's opening doors that would have been shut a few decades ago for young actors and actresses getting their big breaks in franchise roles; instead of being typecast because filmmakers don't see them as "serious" actors, they are the one thing guaranteeing that those serious films are getting made.
The result is that it’s becoming more and more common to see young actors and actresses crossing over, building careers that are both commercially and critically acclaimed, full of diverse roles that are both popcorn and arthouse. One need look no further than the meteoric trajectory of Jennifer Lawrence’s career: The actress parlayed her turn as mutant Mystique into headlining her own blockbuster franchise as the iconic Katniss Everdeen and then winning an Academy Award for Silver Linings Playbook at age 22, a feat that would have been almost unheralded when Star Wars first hit screens.
But that’s not to say this plan of launching one’s career with a franchise is foolproof. The caveat for success is not that a young talent should hitch his or her wagon to any franchise; they must hitch it to a good franchise. Again, we can look to Star Wars, this time the prequels, as a cautionary tale for what can happen if someone’s first introduction to a wide audience is in a franchise that is hated by fans.
Natalie Portman, who played Queen Padme Amidala at just age 18, put it bluntly to New York Magazine last December: "Star Wars had come out...and everyone thought I was a horrible actress. I was in the biggest-grossing movie of the decade, and no one wanted to work with me." It was a harsh awakening to the fickle nature of Hollywood fortune.
The same happened to Ewan McGregor, young Jake Lloyd, who retired from acting completely, and Hayden Christensen, whose career has never recovered. Such are the dangers of hitching your wagon to the wrong star - or, in this case, blossoming stars hitching themselves to the wrong wagon. With franchise contracts now regularly being multi-picture, multi-year deals, and many studios hashing out contract details for lesser-known talent before they even audition, it’s not hyperbolic to say actors can make or break their careers before they even begin.
But it's proven far worth the risk. With filmmakers getting better at telling great stories and creating solid, well-received blockbuster movies, the potential upside of being part of an iconic franchise is virtually unlimited. For a young actor or actress, saying yes to joining a franchise with that much exposure may not always guarantee career success, but saying no will almost certainly guarantee a career that never hits its full potential. For the newcomers to the Star Wars franchise, particularly Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson, Adam Driver, and John Boyega, saying no wasn't ever an option. When Disney and Star Wars come calling, you jump.
Franchise culture is hot, and so are the careers of the actors and actresses that are a part of it. And while the bubble will not last forever - after all, Hollywood trends are cyclical like anything else - for the foreseeable future, it is the most surefire way to A-list status and career longevity. Everyone who wants to be anyone wants in. So far, it’s a damn smart career move.