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

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2013 at 12:03PM

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.
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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. 

This article is related to: Benedict Cumberbatch, Box Office, Box Office, Sandra Bullock, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Gravity, Gravity, The Fifth Estate, The Heat


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.