One of the major ways this generations’ movie fans differ from the past’s, is that the star system has been for the most part, washed away. It used to be you could stick a major draw in any vehicle and expect a good opening and gross. Nowadays the list of actors who guarantee opening weekend success is short: Will Smith, Adam Sandler, and Denzel Washington are 3 of the biggest examples of remaining reliable draws.
What it comes down to is that the star system was never about the actors, it was about the brand. Most lead actors dominated the description of the film. A film starring Gene Kelly film was a Gene Kelly film first, with its plot being secondary. Likewise for Arnold Schwartzenegger, Sylvestor Stallone, Tom Hanks and so forth. The actors was how audiences knew what to expect and which films to go to.
In modern day this adherence to the brand has not changed. In fact it may be as strong as ever. But it comes in the form of franchise films. The stars that create the brand are the Transformers, Edward Cullen and Bella, Jack Sparrow, Batman, and so forth. Franchise films in the form of sequels and remakes absolutely dominate the landscape. Very few actors carry a succesful brand of film across their roles. Adam Sandler and Denzel Washington are two who do of course. An Adam Sandler comedy is an Adam Sandler comedy and a Denzel Washington action film is a Denzel Washington action film. Will Smith is perhaps the outlier as an actor who’s films don’t carry a consistent brand, but who is so popular and charismatic anyways that people have to see his films.
What Hollywood is missing when they try to make tier 2 stars like Ryan Reynolds and Jason Segel into leading men and draws is that it’s not about the actor or having them get the exposure of a big role. What they should be doing is finding a specific identity for their characters that can define their brand and what they bring to a film. Ryan Reynolds’ breakout film was the Proposal, but they’ve followed it up with an assortment of roles in films like the Green Lantern, the Change-Up, and Safe House, all of which have absolutely zero in common with the Proposal or each other. A better idea may have been to cast Reynolds in more romantic comedies with appeal to multi-aged women. There is no Ryan Reynolds films, there’s just films that star Ryan Reynolds. On the other hand an actor who has been succesfully building a brand is Channing Tatum, who a few years after Dear John’s breakout success, starred in another romantic drama played a similarly dewey eyed hunk in the Vow. Starring in GI Joe and 21 Jump Street was also a very good career move for him as those brands are already established.
It may be difficult for Hollywood to ever recreate the star system to what it once was, but they can do themselves favors by considering the concept of branding character roles and giving actors consistent identities in them. The key is in the description. If the actor is first mentioend or more important than the plot when describing the film, there is a good chance he has a strong enough profile to draw. If not then studios better hope that they have a strong plot and concept.