Hollywood's Best and Worst Investments

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When you think of the Hollywood actors who really bring in the box office dough, who do you think of? Tom Cruise? Tom Hanks? Will Smith? George Clooney? (Just kidding about that last one, Clooney’s a sucky actor whose movies almost always bomb; the only reason he still gets work is because he’s a hardcore leftist.) Well, a group of analysts from an online gaming group analyzed the profitability – i.e. the return on budget – of all movies made since 1980 (to focus on mostly living and currently working actors), to figure out which lead actors’ films generated the most profit on the dollar.

The winner? Emilio Estevez.

Yep, the diminutive ’80s and early ’90s star, who effectively quit acting over 10 years ago to focus on directing independent personal projects like The Way and Bobby, is officially the most profitable actor in Hollywood for the past 40 years. You may find it hard to believe, but the numbers don’t lie:

[The study] found that the “Young Guns” star delivered the best return of any top-billed male actor who has starred in at least 10 films. Specifically, for every $1 spent on the leading man’s films, Estevez generated $6.70 at the box office.

Here are the top five most profitable lead actors:
1. Emilio Estevez ($6.70 for each dollar invested)
2. Jean-Claude Van Damme ($4.20 for each dollar invested)
3. Mel Gibson ($3.50 for each dollar invested)
4. Tyler Perry ($3 for each dollar invested)
5. Dudley Moore ($3 for each dollar invested)

And the least profitable lead actors?
1. Brad Pitt ($0.10 per dollar)
2. Johnny Depp ($0.20 per dollar)
3. Robert DeNiro ($0.24 per dollar)
4. Hugh Jackman ($0.25 per dollar)
5. Anthony Hopkins ($0.26 per dollar)

Obviously there’s a lot at play behind these numbers. You probably noticed that most of top five profitable actors had their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, back when budgets were much lower and actors worked for much cheaper, thus it was much easier to get a good return on investment with them. Through a combination of likeability, talent, smart role-selection and plain good luck, Estevez starred in a lot of popular movies back in the day, three of which spawned sequels (Young Guns, Stakeout, and The Mighty Ducks). Jean-Claude Van Damme was never a blockbuster juggernaut like, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his movies could be made very cheaply and consistently made good money. Thus, casting either man in the lead pretty much guaranteed an excellent return on a small budget.

Nowadays, big-budget movies make a lot more money, but they can cost $200+ million to make and promote, and getting a big lead star like Tom Cruise or Will Smith means paying them at least $20 million up-front plus a hefty cut of the back-end profits. Also, they tend to bomb more often. For every Pirates of the Caribbean on Johnny Depp’s resume, there’s half a dozen Lone Rangers or Dark Shadows. That cuts into an actor’s profitability, big time.

The analysts were not able to gather a great deal of data for actresses, because successful movies with female leads are much less common, but they found the top three most profitable actresses of the last decade were:
1. Rose Byrne ($9.80 for each dollar invested)
2. Regina Hall ($3.50 for each dollar invested)
3. Octavia Spencer ($2.90 for each dollar invested)

Well, there you have it. If Hollywood wants a sure-fire hit (and with sex scandals and ugly politics driving away their customers, God knows they could use a hit right about now), they should convince Emilio Estevez to star in a new Mighty Ducks movie, with Rose Byrne playing his co-star/love interest, and they would print money. Print. Money.

9 comments to Hollywood’s Best and Worst Investments

  • kishke

    Does it make sense to hang the whole budget on the back of the lead actor? Seems a bit misleading.

    • Oh, I dunno, movies tend to live or die based on their lead actors. Imagine if they made a new Mission Impossible movie without Tom Cruise and just had some random nobody in his place – how many people would be excited to see that? Or, consider how badly the new Mitch Rapp movie flopped, despite getting good reviews, after they gave the lead role to some TV actor nobody had ever heard of. Imagine how much better it would’ve done with Chris Pratt or some other popular actor in the role.

      There are exceptions, of course, like horror and fantasy/superhero movies, where the genre is the star. But generally speaking, the lead actor matters alot.

      • To further amplify your point, I dont think Marvel becomes Marvel without Robert Downey Jr.

      • Dr. Schplatt

        I know for a fact that there are certain movies I will not go see because certain actors are in them, even if the plot of the movie is something I might be interested in. Some actors/actresses just irritate me so I don’t watch their movies. There are also movies I’ll go see just because an actor is in it assuming of course the plot isn’t just horrible to begin with. It can push me from mildly interested to actually making an effort to get a baby sitter, fight with traffic and put up with trashy Asian theaters to see the movie.

        • Rufus

          Same here (well, except for the trashy, Asian theaters part). Even though there are a lot of actors who have said such idiotic and offensive things, there are only two individuals whose films I refuse to see; Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. And both have movies I would very much like to see. I think I would really enjoy, “China Town,” and before he married his barely legal step-daughter, Woody Allen had made some movies I really enjoyed, and wrote one of my favorite books, and has made several films since that I know I would really enjoy, but I just can’t bring myself to give the guy any of my money.

      • kishke

        Understood. But the film could be really expensive to make for all kinds of reasons, which would affect these stats, while showing nothing about the popularity of the lead actor.

  • Rufus

    Weird. I think I understand the method they used (I followed the link to the article), but I wonder why they didn’t take the actor’s direct compensation into account? It’s part of the budget, but is it really Arnie’s fault if he gets picked for movies with expensive, special effects?

    I think a better stat would be the salary paid the lead actor subtracted from the box office gross. But maybe that would still return something similar, since, as the article points out, big stars in big budget movies will suffer a lot more from either formula in the event of a bomb.

    Many of you probably remember Merchant Ivory stumbling onto a similar reality back in the ’80s. They realized one could produce period dramas rather cheaply, and there were a handful of talented, dramatic stars with a loyal following whose fans could be depended on to buy a ticket for anything they are in. Pay an affordable screenwriter to adapt a classic, non-adventure novel (no Dumas or Tolkein) in the public domain, stuff the actors and actresses in some period clothing, rent a seaside cottage and a horse-drawn carriage and you’ll make a nice 3X on your investment. You’ll even win some academy awards for costume design.

  • Rufus

    Love the Estevez bros. gif at the top of the post!