Dwayne Johnson – A Return to the Hollywood Superstars of Legend

By Randy Krinsky

With a ton of box office hits, Dwayne Johnson, still affectionately called “The Rock" from his professional wrestling days, is undoubtedly one of the biggest action stars working today; definitely one of the best-paid. I would say he could be a return to the superstars of yesteryear; back when Hollywood bankability was based more on personalities and star power than the actual film project itself.

These days when Johnson signs on to star in a film, he commands paychecks that are on a level Hollywood hasn’t seen in years! No matter if it’s a solo gig, with his Fast and Furious family, or another team-up with Kevin Hart, Johnson is a guaranteed hit-maker. Because of that assured success, he now gets paid more than $20 million a film, on-par with what I believe are only two others currently, Jennifer Lawrence and Will Smith. Lawrence and Smith were recently paid $20 million for their roles in Red Sparrow and Bright, respectively. Johnson got his first $20 million up-front paycheck for the Jumanji sequel Welcome to the Jungle. It’s not just a one-time deal, Johnson is getting $22 million for the upcoming Universal action-thriller Red Notice. According to The Wall Street Journal, that’s $21 million base pay and $1 million for Johnson’s “social media support,” as well as a back-end deal based on the film’s performance. Not too shabby.

I know what you’re saying to yourself, ‘Hey, Robert Downey, Jr. gets $50 million for suiting up in the MCU films!’ True, but a lot of his money is back-end deals, roughly 5-7% of box-office. Heck, he might have pulled in $50 million for Avengers, but he’s rumored to be getting $200 million for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4! But also, you can’t compare RDJ, or Jennifer Lawrence, or Will Smith for that matter, to an action star like Johnson. RDJ and Lawrence are Academy Award winners, and Smith is a two-time Academy nominee. All three are actors of high caliber with range and the ability to truly embody a role and step outside of their respective public personas. Johnson is “The Rock” in everything he’s in; he is quite simple “Star Power.”

When I say that RDJ, Lawrence, and Smith are actors, while Johnson is “The Rock,” don’t get upset, it’s not a criticism and I don’t mean it in a disparaging way. Dwayne Johnson is an actor, a good one. My point is that he’s the type of actor that calls back to a time in Hollywood when box office receipts were based on superstar name recognition, not well-written storylines or character development. Some of Johnson’s most profitable films were ripped apart by critics, but it hasn’t stopped the studios from knocking on his door.

For example, when a studio wants to jump start their slumping franchise project, who have they been calling? Dwayne Johnson. It all started with Fast Five (2011). When the third installment of the franchise, Tokyo Drift, underperformed, they went back to the well and brought back Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez for the fourth film, Fast & Furious (2009). That film doubled the previous film’s box office with a worldwide gross of $363 million. For the fifth film, Fast Five, they decided to up their game, increase their budget by $50 million, make it a heist film, and added a new element, Dwayne Johnson. Fast Five grossed $626 million! Was it all because of Johnson? Of course not, but it certainly was a factor.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) was a financial hit. For the sequel, they basically wanted a soft reboot, but reduced the budget by about $45 million, while adding Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson to the cast. The gamble paid off as G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2011), despite the reduced budget, was another financial hit, outpacing the original to a worldwide gross of $375 million (the first film grossed $302 million). Again, was it all because of Johnson? No, but a pattern was emerging. Studios were beginning to see the new bankability of Dwayne Johnson. His subsequent Fast & Furious films have all been huge hits, and producers are scrambling to get Johnson to sign on their projects, while trying to shoehorn them into his already cramped filming schedule. Already planned is a San Andreas sequel, another Jumanji film, and not to mention his long-awaiting DC entry, Black Adam. With this new bankability came an opportunity to start commanding $20 million paychecks.

We haven’t seen that kind of money being offered up-front since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when actors such as Will Smith, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts were pulling in these kinds of paydays. Sure, actors like Sandra Bullock, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, and the aforementioned Robert Downey Jr. can still command these kinds of fees, but only for certain projects. Pulling from our old Friend Downey’s filmography once again, he can get paid $20 million plus for another Iron Man film, but if he signs on for something similar to The Judge, his pay will be considerably less. Why is this? Because today audiences are buying tickets more for the story, or the characters, and less for the stars. I mean let’s face it, if Chris Evans retired tomorrow and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes moved up and filled his shoes, Captain America: Reborn would still gross hundreds of millions of dollars (that’s not a real film by the way, so don’t inundate Kevin Feige with tweets…). Why? Because though fans love Chris Evans, they are there to see the character and marvel at the story (see what I did there, “marvel”).

But Dwayne Johnson is different. He possesses superhero size and charisma all on his own, without a costume, or a Russo brothers script backing him. Johnson is more the draw that whatever character he might be playing in a particular film. Think back to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s. They pretty much played themselves in every film they were in. Or, if you want go way back, think John Wayne in any film he ever starred in. He didn’t act a role; he simply swaggered on the soundstage and was John Wayne, whether it was a Western, war pic, whatever. These actors were more personalities than trying to inhabit a character role. Do you think John Wayne struggled to get dialect right or did background for any of his roles? No, he was John Wayne. You were going to go see the film because he was John Wayne. Think about it. It’s true!

Dwayne Johnson is a superstar for this generation, like Schwarzenegger and Stallone were for the 1980s, or like John Wayne was before them. He’s a type of Hollywood star we haven’t seen in many years. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing; definitely a good thing for the studios; definitely good for his fans. It might not be so good for Johnson when he decides to break free and test his range as an actor. Will fans still come out and see him? I’m sure they will. Will studios take a risk and allow him to try new things. That I’m not so sure about; studios can be counted on to keep to formula. They don’t like to take gambles.

For now, Johnson doesn’t have to worry and neither do we. There’s plenty of Dwayne Johnson material on the horizon. We might have to wait until 2020 for Red Notice, but Rampage is due out in April, with Skyscraper following in July. Go check them out and you’ll see what I mean when I say Johnson is a throwback to a time when superstars ruled.


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