Robert Downey Jr has had a very up and down (and up again) career, and whilst he has been hugely popular with a large set of fans for the duration, his fall from grace meant that he wasn’t a big box office draw for most of it. This has changed in the last couple of years. His charismatic and comedic performance was a big part of the reason for the first Iron Man’s success, and also contributed to Tropic Thunder’s decent numbers.

Then over Christmas Sherlock Holmes shocked the industry by making a huge amount of money. Holmes isn’t the most exciting of properties, director Guy Ritchie was coming off of a series of flops, and co-star Jude Law could never be considered a big seller (as evidenced by Repo Men). This means that the presence of Downey was the main driving force behind the movie’s financial success. Is he the last of the big box office stars, or does he signal the return of the bankable actor?

 Last year’s box office draws were big licenses, not big stars. Consider the highest grossing movies of 2009. There’s no denying Robert Pattinson is hugely popular with a particular set of fans. But this popularity is down to his association with the Twilight franchise, so the success of New Moon can’t reasonably be attributed to his presence, it is actually the other way around. Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen was the highest grossing film of last year, but this could actually be considered to be despite Shia Labeouf’s appearance rather than because of it. He has his fans, but just as many can’t stand him, and the performance of Jennifer’s Body rules out any influence Megan Fox could be said to have had. The other big grossers, Star Trek, GI Joe and 2012 featured casts that were almost B-list, so their success is surely down to property recognition, marketing and blockbuster appeal. There is no denying money goes to money, and that was certainly the big theme last year.

 Back in the eighties and early nineties, there was a set of actors considered to be superstars. Action heroes like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were paid a huge amount of money, because the movies they starred in did big business at the box office. When these actors went on to try different types of movies, however, their fan bases didn’t follow them. Leading men like Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson were given great power because of their popularity, but they all suffered high profile failures, and the illusion was shattered. It seems clear now that it was the types of movies these actors made, as much as the stars themselves that drew audiences in. The notion of the box office superstar was a fallacy.

 How about the new generation of ‘big names’? Sam Worthington starred in Terminator: Salvation and Avatar last year, both of which drew hundreds of millions of dollars. So were all the people who went to see Clash of the Titans paying to see Worthington? Or the 3D action? Disney’s next big tentpole is Prince of Persia, but lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal, though respected, has never been in financially successful movies, and his last movie Brothers made less than $40M at the worldwide box office. Anyone could have been cast as the star of Prince of Persia, it will make a lot of money regardless.

 The man considered to be the last big bankable star, the actor who could guarantee big box office was Will Smith. But Big Willie was smart. By his own admission, he noticed that the highest grossing movies throughout his childhood were big sci-fi movies, so he followed a formula for his career. Save the world in one big blockbuster movie, then take on a smaller personal part for the next. By alternating like this, he remained a huge star whilst making movies on a regular basis that didn’t take in a huge amount of money. Whilst smaller personal project The Pursuit of Happyness made hundreds of millions, his last dramatic picture Seven Pounds performed disappointingly, and his most personal project of all, his Ali biopic, made a loss.

 This is borne out by Downey himself. Yes, his movies have made a lot of money in the last couple of years, but not his low profile drama The Soloist. His presence wasn’t enough to draw audiences in, and that is clearly proof that even the hottest stars can only sell a movie with a big marketing push to back it up. The other ‘bankable’ star still plying his trade is Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies were hugely successful, and sold almost singularly on the presence of Depp and his massively popular Jack Sparrow character. This year’s highest grossing movie to date, Alice in Wonderland, also starred Depp. But his appearance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus didn’t help it make any dent in the pockets of the movie going public.

 The notion of guaranteed box office stars is crumbling. Maybe the bankable box office star NEVER existed, and movie studios have been throwing money away for years on huge pay packets for big name actors. Based on the casting of last year’s hits 2012, Star Trek, GI Joe etc.. Hollywood may actually be beginning to wise up to this. Why pay out $20M plus for a successful actor with a huge ego, when that money can be better spent on additional marketing, the true star of any tentpole movie. There’s no doubting Iron Man II will make a whole lot of money this weekend, and i personally believe the presence of Robert Downey Jr is definitely a factor. I’ve seen the movie, and the performance and sheer presence of Downey elevates the movie. However, i can’t help also feeling that the $100M+ spent on marketing is a bigger factor, and if his paycheck had been instead used on a shoddy post-production 3D conversion, Iron Man 2 would make just as much money. And that is really a very sad thought.

Bazmann – You can follow me on twitter at