How The Rock Became A 21st Century Movie Star

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Carla Gugino in San Andreas

Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.

With an estimated domestic box office debut of $53.2 million, San Andreas is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson's best ever opening weekend as the solo star of a film. But what does that even mean in 2015? Does San Andreas' box office success finally make Johnson a bona fide A-list movie star? Does it demonstrate instead that he is merely the actor with the best business savvy working in Hollywood today? Or is there, perhaps, no difference between the two anymore?

The definition of a movie star is, at best, difficult to pin down. It can mean an actor who regularly brings in massive box office on their name alone, like Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Will Smith used to do until they didn't anymore, or like Scarlett Johansson, Melissa McCarthy, and Kevin Hart have done over the past few years. It can mean an actor who is so strongly identified with a blockbuster franchise that one's success is inexorably linked to the other's, like Robert Downey Jr. with the Iron Man and Avengers movies, Jennifer Lawrence with the Hunger Games films, and Kristen Stewart with the Twilight films. Or it can mean an actor whose charismatic persona, stunning beauty, and Oscar credibility transcend the need for consistent blockbuster box office, like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Reese Witherspoon.

Johnson does not quite fall into any of those categories. His charisma and physical beauty are undeniable, but without any awards season attention, he hasn't yet reached Hollywood's most rarefied inner circle. (You only need to look at Mark Wahlberg and Jonah Hill's elevated stature in Hollywood after their respective Oscar nominations to understand how important it can be to an actor's career.)

As a solo star, meanwhile, only Johnson's family films have been hits, and modest ones at best — his most successful film to date, 2007's The Game Plan, pulled in $90.6 million domestically. Otherwise, movies built on Johnson's star power alone — low-budget crime thrillers like 2010's Faster and 2013's Snitch — haven't even reached $50 million in North America, and barely make any money overseas. The visual effects–driven fantasy adventure film Hercules, Johnson's big star vehicle for the summer of 2014, got creamed when it opened opposite Johansson's Lucy; the film ultimately eked out just $72.7 million in North America.

Johnson in Furious 7

Scott Garfield / Universal Pictures

Instead, Johnson has had the most success joining franchises that were already modestly successful, and each time, his presence appeared to boost that franchise's global box office. 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation earned roughly $75 million more worldwide than 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. 2012's Journey 2: The Mysterious Island made nearly $100 more worldwide than its 2008 predecessor. And 2011's Fast Five nearly doubled the global box office of 2009's Fast and Furious a trajectory that has barely slowed with the subsequent Fast and Furious movies. Furious 7 is now the fourth highest grossing film worldwide of all time.

These franchises, however, aren't defined in audiences' minds by Johnson's presence — he's added value, but he isn't the main event. San Andreas' marketing campaign similarly emphasized the film's destructive spectacle over Johnson's appeal as a movie star. You could arguably have substituted another bulked-up actor in the role — like Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Hunnam, or, yes, Mark Wahlberg — and the film's box office result likely would have been the same.

But the movie didn't star those actors; it starred Johnson. And in a Hollywood marketplace dominated by franchises and visual effects, and that has less and less need for specific actors to be a film’s main box office draw, Johnson has carved out a unique place for himself as a kind of 21st century movie star. With 49 million likes on Facebook, 8.7 million followers on Twitter, and a massive physique that is its own special effect, Johnson has created an unmistakable persona as an irrepressibly likable guy’s guy. Like the muscle-bound stars of the 1980s, he literally cannot disappear into a role, but unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Johnson is also content to let the destruction of California overshadow his star power. It’s a strategy that has increasingly paid off, especially overseas, where even Hercules earned an impressive $170 million. So while Johnson may not quite fulfill the traditional definition of a movie star, he is certainly redefining it for himself.

Gugino and Johnson in San Andreas

Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.

Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:

1. San Andreas* — $53.2 million

2. Pitch Perfect 2 — $14.4 million

3. Tomorrowland — $13.8 million

4. Mad Max: Fury Road — $13.6 million

5. Avengers: Age of Ultron — $10.9 million

6. Aloha* — $10 million

7. Poltergeist — $7.8 million

8. Far from the Madding Crowd — $1.4 million

9. Hot Pursuit — $1.37 million

10. Home — $1.2 million

*Opening weekend

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