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As 'Gravity' and 'Captain Phillips' Hit and 'Fifth Estate' Bombs, Who's a Movie Star, Anyway? UPDATED

Box Office
by Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna
October 23, 2013 12:03 PM
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Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

UPDATE: While Benedict Cumberbatch is still proving his stripes as a bankable star, PBS has scheduled the third season of "Sherlock" to premiere on January 19, slotted immediately after "Downton Abbey," which has its fourth season stateside premiere January 5. As the Hollywood Reporter puts it, PBS is doubling down on Brit drama.

Which makes sense. "Downton Abbey" boosted the channel's ratings by 26% last season. The hope being that the popular "Sherlock," which stars Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit") as Watson, will only add to that.

EARLIER: What defines a movie star?

That term is thrown around with abandon, but more and more in today's Hollywood, audiences fall for movie characters--Edward Cullen, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley, Harry Potter, John McClane, Rocky Balboa, Ethan Hunt or James Bond--more than the actors who play them.

Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy
Ruven Afanador Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy

Take Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks and Benedict Cumberbatch. 

With blockbuster "Gravity" the movie sphere is abuzz with the discovery that Bullock is a movie star. Excuse me? She has been a movie star for a decades, and has never stopped being a movie star since she broke out with Keanu Reeves in "Speed." (How is Reeves doing, by the way?) She survived years of studio-generated thrillers and romantic comedies and emerged intact with one hit after another, earned an Oscar for mainstream dramatic smash "The Blind Side" (those are hard to pull off) and followed up with this year's double whammy of "Gravity" and "The Heat," which many writers credited to comedienne Melissa McCarthy, who is on a box-office roll. If there ever was a two-hander, this was it--the best on-screen pairing since Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But who's the bigger star? Bullock.

While most people are singing the praises of the scale and scope of Alfonso Cuaron's VFX-packed spectacle, there's a warm beating heart at its center. The movie wouldn't work without Bullock, who ably carries "Gravity," which demanded a balletically-trained athlete as well as an emotive performer to pull it off. 

Tom Hanks as "Captain Phillips"
Tom Hanks as "Captain Phillips"

As for Hanks, another bonafide movie star who has kept his marquee wattage via his role as Robert Langdon in "The Da Vinci Code" but has slipped in other vehicles such as "Cloud Atlas" and his own directing effort "Larry Crowne,' is riding high on "Captain Phillips." In this case audiences are flocking to see a real life story in which the star is perfectly cast as an heroic everyman who suffers at the hands of Somali pirates in order to save his crew. Hanks has been a movie star for decades, and his innate decency and acting chops help to carry the movie. We project our feelings about Hanks onto the real-life person he is portraying. We care about him. 

Cumberbatch is in a different category. He's a young actor on the swift rise who is undoubtedly popular, especially in England and among fans of the TV series that broke him out, "Sherlock Holmes." But what if many fans of that series really like him as the latest iteration of Sir Arthur Conan's Doyle iconic detective? (Cumberbatch also carried mini-series "Parade's End" superbly.) He is still one of many great actors, from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton to Jason Clarke, who have yet to prove themselves as marquee draws. (He may replace Hardy in "Everest.") After all, that is the definition of movie star: someone who can actually open a movie and earn their millions by putting butts in seats.

Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Fifth Estate"
Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Fifth Estate"

Cumberbatch has five films under his belt for 2013 alone -- "Star Trek Into Darkness," "12 Years a Slave," "August: Osage County," "The Fifth Estate" and "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." And don't forget that swooning fan club entitled the Cumberbitches. Yet "The Fifth Estate," where Cumberbatch steps into leading man gear as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, suffered the worst wide release of the year. What gives?

Steve McQueen's highly praised slavery drama "12 Years a Slave," on the other hand, scored an impressive $50,000 per-screen average in 19 locations this past weekend. But that film isn't riding on Cumberbatch's appeal, despite his superb turn in a supporting role as a conflicted slave owner. 

"The Fifth Estate"'s poor showing had as much to do with viewers not being interested in the man he was playing, Julian Assange, and a lack of interest in its journalism/media subject matter as anything else. While Cumberbatch got better reviews than the movie, he didn't pull viewers in either. He's just not there yet. 


  • Anna | October 23, 2013 1:36 AMReply

    Just saw TFE. Loved Benedict. Found the movie boring as hell. I'm a senior and not a big fan of action and nudity, so that was not the reason. The film was just a big yawn for me and I only stayed to watch Benedict's stellar performance. Too bad since he worked so hard on this film. But, he's an exceptional actor and he'll recover. I will watch anything he does.

  • Rosalind | October 22, 2013 7:01 PMReply

    Focusing on movie stars overlooks a major difference between Gravity/Captain Phillips and The Fifth Estate: Reviews. As has been demonstrated several times this year alone, stars are not enough to make a movie successful. They're are a draw to theaters and can provide a critical initial boost, but the overall quality of the movie is what really determines how many people are willing to pay money to see it, and many aren't willing to risk it on a movie that's been dismissed by critics. Bullock and Hanks do of course have ample star power, but that's only one factor. I'd wager that even the highest-wattage A-lister wouldn't have made The Fifth Estate a financial success - at most, it would have taken in a bit more on opening weekend.

  • fishnets | October 22, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    Benedict Cumberbatch is NOT a star and never will be. Stars are charismatic, likable and/or have everyman/everywoman quality and he is neither. He is also ridiculously overexposed so many people are sick of him already. Not to mention that star quality means that star himself is supposed to interest the public in tough sell projects and even Cumberfans admitted they had no desire to see 5th Esate DESPITE their Lord and Savior headlining the movie. That's a proof right there that he is NOT a draw outside of Shrelock (which is sold on Sherlock Holmes popularity) or any franchise that sells regardless who is cast.

    Moreover, Hollywood will never learn two things it seems:

    a) pushing someone in the spotlight, buying him/her Time/Hollywood Reporter/Vanity Fair/other prstige cover, and shovelling them in 5-6 movies per year does not mean masses will fall in love with that actor/actress. If they don't have personality that appeals to masses, it's a wasted money. This guy doesn't have what it takes.

    b) Tumblr or other social network swooning over an actor is no proof of future boxoffice power or representation of what silent minority thinks. Cumberfans are obivously very loud but also not a force at the boxoffice, and many admitted they wouldn't see Cumberbatch in every movie, but only in something where he plays what THEY (not general public that obivously doesn't care for him one way or the other) perceive as a romantic figure.

    I also don't know why Cumberbomb apologists keep bringing up 12 Years A Slave. He was good but nothing memorable or outstanding. The role is small, not particulary significant and other actors are simply much better (since their roles allow them to be). It is not his movie, he is not a show stealer, he doesn't even feature in marketing so stop trying to balance out 5th Estate fiasco with its success. It's not working.

    The real question shouldn't be if 5Th Esate hurts is (prematurely bestowed upon yet realistically unexisting) star status but whether his PR will stop bombarding us with 24-7 hype that this guy is second coming of acting Christ. Just tone down while he still hasn't earned the right to be called A Lister, a star, best of his generation and what not.

  • EDM | October 23, 2013 3:40 AM


    I confess that I am a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch, oh, no, I am not on Tumblr and don't swoon over him despite the fact I do find him very charismatic and handsome, and I'd check the online articles related to him in my spare time, but not all of them; what amazes me and it's getting freaking hilarious is I have seen your comments about him on every article I've read in these two days. Honestly I don't have time to follow someone I don't like and am not interested in, then of course I won't notice how many articles or news about the said person.
    Your behavior demonstrates at least two things to me:
    a) You have too much spare time. I'd sincerely suggest you find a second job or study for a second degree or participate in some community activities, for instance, some charity work.
    b) Constantly hating on someone you don't even know in real life and is absolutely not relevant to everyone's daily life, financial conditions and well-beings is really going to damage your mental health, and such signs obviously show.

    You can change it in a second if you stop being so obsessed with someone you can easily ignore. Life can be so much more beautiful.

  • Gigi | October 22, 2013 6:26 PM

    You are really really scary in your hate... Are you an ex of his or something? Or an actor he stole a role from?
    Cumberbatch may not be a superstar yet, but he will be one, that's for sure. He is charismatic as he'll and stands out in every role. His peers love him, the business loves him, and there's nothing someone like you in your stalkery hating Rumpelstiltskin like obsession can do about it. Keep posting hate on every possible board, it's rather entertaining.

  • Washington | October 22, 2013 4:05 PM

    Get a grip on reality and stop wasting so much time thinking about meaningless horseshit

  • Etta | October 22, 2013 11:28 AMReply

    Don't hate on the actor because people aren't interested in the part. That's just silly.

  • strand | October 22, 2013 11:02 AMReply

    I hate it when they start sticking an actor in every film that comes out in hopes that it will establish them in people's minds as a star. And it usually WORKS! Most of the actors/actresses don't live much beyond their initial hype period. And if they do, it's in a stream of endless mediocrite, hoping desperately that Terrence Malick might pick them to be one of his mannequins before it's back to the grind.

  • STRAND | October 22, 2013 11:04 AM

    Also, Jessica Chastain really isn't that pretty. And remember Winona Ryder? Last I heard she was shoplifting from Macy's.

  • Susie | October 22, 2013 7:12 AMReply

    Apparently everyone who attended The Fifth Estate has commented on this thread. Not surprisingly, they find the film to be excellent and Cumberbatch to be a star.

  • I M. | October 21, 2013 10:10 PMReply

    Jennifer Lawrence qualifies as bonified movie star...has an Oscar, two nominations, is the actress that according to The Hollywood Reporter is the actress that all the best scripts go to first. Also, as far as whether Lawrence is as beloved as her character? need only to google interviews, YouTube, etc., I mean, c' include Katniss Everdeen as an example?. That was silly and you know it.

  • gene | October 22, 2013 2:54 PM

    Disagree. Trust me , once The Hunger Games hype ends , she will not have anything else to fall back on. I still feel Jennifer Lawrence undeservedly won her Oscar, and she is an actress with little depth and no training. Saoirse Ronan is a young actress with unbelievable depth , intelligence , complexity , and presence. Where is her franchise or blockbuster starring roles ? I don't believe Jennifer Lawrence is the only young actress getting the top scripts. When you have Natalie Portman , Anne Hathaway , Emma Stone , and Reese Witherspoon in high demand.

    Everyone should be looking at Meryl Streep's model of a film career. Study acting , be versatile as possible, be choosy about film projects , and work with good filmmakers , and act on stage as much as possible. Plus, have a rich personal life and keep out of the limelight as much as possible. Streep only became a movie star after the age of 50 because her goal was always to be a character actress. Movie stardom should never be the goal.

  • Trish B. | October 21, 2013 10:05 PMReply

    The Hollywood machine blockbuster is soooo overrated, and I'm thoroughly tired of being spoon-fed car chases, giant explosions, and extreme sex/violence every time I see a movie in a theater. They are inescapable.

    The fact is that I very much enjoy many of the actors who make these films, but sadly, I'm getting weary of what they're always trying to sell to me. It's always so over the top and completely unbelievable that I just end up being bored...and isn't that the reason why Hollywood keeps churning out such bilge; to NOT bore us.

    Benedict Cumberbatch is the REAL deal. He's talented beyond belief AND he cares about the projects he works on...whether in Hollywood or not. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance as Assange, regardless of how I feel about JA personally. That didn't matter in the least. What mattered to me was being in that theater and watching a man put his heart and soul into an outstanding performance. And that's just what I got for my efforts. Outstanding!

  • Catalina D. | October 21, 2013 9:28 PMReply

    Loved The Fifth Estate, was intrigued by the subject matter from day one as I have been a Wikileaks supporter since I became aware of the organization back in 2010. I don't get the mixed reviews as I was engaged by the film, performances, and the treatment of the subject matter from beginning to end. The chemistry between the leads was perfect and for a movie that had no car chases, special FX, nudity, sex, relatively no violence and whose ending I pretty much knew - I was held in thrall throughout the full 128min

    The lack of US audience doesn't surprise me for the aforementioned reasons no car chases, special FX, nudity, sex, violence and a subject matter that is not easily disseminated into good guys and bad guys.

  • bryan | October 22, 2013 9:45 AM

    ugh...The Fifth Estate is also bombs in UK

  • Niles J | October 21, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    I also could care less about Tom Hanks, although I have enjoyed a few of his films. I really have no desire to see his film, either.

  • Niles J | October 21, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Interesting perspective. I have to say I tried to like Gravity. Tried to view it, got seasick and had to leave the theatre. I may have purchased a ticket, but ai won't go back. I really care nothing about Sandra Bullock. She was just conveniently part of a film I thought I might enjoy.

    However, I do care about Benedict Cumberbatch. He is absolutely one of the finest actors out there today, his interpretation of Julian Assange was superb. The lack of audience says as much about the US's need for ADHD-type spectacle and non-stop action as it does about real talent and fine acting. I am afraid we have become quite shallow in our preferences. What a waste.

  • Gigi | October 22, 2013 6:28 PM

    Exactly. People go and see Gravity because of the special effects, not because Bullock. If Sandra bullock acts in shite films, people don't go.

  • Jamie | October 21, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    I love Cumberbatch, but had absolutely no interest in the subject of the film right from its announcement. Nothing in trailers or reviews changed that opinion. Being a star is good. Making a good movie great. Having an interesting subject - fine. Getting reviews that really explore why it is worth seeing immediately - wonderful. I think you need at least 3 of the 5 to equal box office.

  • gigi | October 21, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    Sandra Bullock is a movie star. people go to watch her movies, but she is not the reason they went to see Gravity - the rave reviews and hype is the reason. that movie would be a hit with anyone else. Cumberbatch has fans but not enough to make poorly reviewed movie a hit, especially drama.

  • gmp | October 22, 2013 3:01 PM

    Sandra Bullock is a movie star , but she plays it too safe. I would rush to see a Cate Blanchett film or a Kate Winslet movie movie before I see Bullock film. I want to see Sandra shakes things up with her film career. I find her to have one of the most uninteresting movie careers, while Nicole Kidman continues to take career risks.

    I guess I am the only one that didn't care for the paring of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. I found the film mediocre . rarely funny , and the performances forgettable .

  • Katrina | October 21, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    Or perhaps it's the American viewers who "just aren't there yet". Cumberbatch is every bit as talented as either of the other actors listed in this article, we just haven't grown up watching him like we have Bullock and Hanks.

  • gmp | October 22, 2013 3:06 PM

    You may be right . Benedict Cumberbatch is unbelievably gifted and always a joy to watch. I would take him over Bullock, Hanks, & McCarthy.

    I am surprised that Hollywood is not giving major roles to Jon Hamm , Patrick Wilson, and Timothy Olyphant . These guys are charismatic , gifted , versatile , and have that X-factor .

  • Niles J | October 21, 2013 9:11 PM

    I totally agree.

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