To what degree do actors stick to just one genre?

When the public first hears of a new movie, they don’t have much information to judge it on.  This is before they can get a steer on the quality of the film (i.e. no reviews, no word of mouth) so they have only scant information with which to form an opinion on whether or not to see it.

The company behind it is rarely a factor (with the possible exception of Disney and their sub-brands Pixar and Marvel).  Not many directors have a strong commercial public brand and almost no producers or writers do.  So what is the public using to form their snap judgement?  It normally comes down to:

  • The genre(s)
  • The poster elements (i.e. name, visual style and logline)
  • The main actor(s)

This is part of the reason that top actors are paid so much: their brand is hugely important to convince people to see a movie.

A few years ago, I used facial recognition tools to measure actors’ brands by looking at the emotions they displayed on movie posters.  I discovered that the angriest star is Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), Harrison Ford is the most contemptuous, Seth Rogan is the most surprised, Renée Zellweger the happiest and Ben Affleck the saddest (which nicely matches the online memes).

I want to return to the topic but use a different measure of ‘brand’.  This time, I’m going to look at how many of top actors’ roles are within a certain genre.

Imagine a movie called “Divorce Battle”.  If I tell you it stars Carey Mulligan then you will most likely think of it as a weepy drama.  If instead, I tell you that it stars Jason Statham, then you may change your guess to a punchy/ kicky thriller.  Finally, if I switch out the lead to Steve Martin then you may decide not to see it at all.  (Ok, that’s a cheap joke but not entirely false!)

One last example: imagine that “Divorce Battle” stars Matt Damon.  Is it a drama? An action film? A comedy?  It’s hard to know because he performs in a wide range of movies.  That may be more enjoyable for him as an artist but it weakens his brand as a quick signifier to the public.

I generated a list of 275 famous actors and actresses, who I will collectively refer to as ‘actors’. All had received high billing in at least ten movies over the past twenty years.  See the Note section at the end of this article for my methodology and reason for the gender-neutral noun.  I then looked at the genre of all the movies they have made throughout their career to date.

Which actors stick to the same genre(s)?

Of the 275 actors I studied, Adam Sandler came out as the most consistent. 51 of his 52 movies are comedies, with the one holdout being Reign Over Me.

Comedy dominates the ‘most skewed’ actors’ list, with fourteen of the twenty most genre-consistent actors earning their places due to their commitment to mainly doing comedy movies.  The only other genre present was Drama, with Carey Mulligan being at the forefront of the ‘I only do dramas’ movement.

Which actors are the least pigeon-holed into a genre?

At the other end of the spectrum are actors whose careers have the weakest skew towards one genre.   The genre Ron Perlman has worked in most frequently is drama, although that only covers a third of the movies he’s made.

Hugh Jackman (fifth on the list below) is another example for this cross-genre career, becoming the quintessential leading man in both musicals and action movies.

It’s interesting that Ron Perlman emerges as someone who works across the greatest range of genres because arguably he is often cast in a similar archetypal role.  His characters are typically gruff, imposing, menacing, po-faced threats.  This suggests that his personal brand is strong but not genre-defining.  I.e. “Divorce Battle” starring Ron Pearlman does not give away its genre, compared with “Divorce Battle” starring Adam Sandler.

I’m not going to go through every genre’s top list, but I did want to pull out a few interesting ones.

Horror

Horror is not a genre ruled by big star names and consequently, even the actors whose careers are most skewed towards horror are not known specifically for horror.  Chloë Grace Moretz comes out on top, with just over a quarter of her movie appearances being in horror movies.

Romance

The Romance genre is dominated by female actors, with only one man appearing on the list – Paul Rudd in tenth place.

Thriller

Jason Statham tops the Thriller chart, and comes second within Action, meaning that there’s a 75% chance that any movie he’s in has got lots of running / driving/ explosions / men shouting that time is running out.

Notes

When I started on this topic, I didn’t envisage how complex it would be to build a list of ‘famous actors’.  I first looked at measures of fame (such as IMDb’s STARmeter) but as these are current to this week they tend to overvalue people with new movies and TV shows just out and undervalue those who are on a temporary career hiatus.  I next turned to social media (i.e. number of Twitter followers) but this proved even less useful as this measure is heavily affected by the actor’s outspokenness and non-movie related actions, not to mention that some major actors are not on social media.

In the end, I decided to look at all actors who were among the top ten billed names on at least ten movies which were first released in domestic cinemas between 1st January 1999 and 31st December 2018, and which were ranked in the top 5,000 on the IMDb MOVIEmeter. This produced 275 names, which split into 200 male actors and 75 female actors (why this wasn’t an even gender split is a topic for another day!)  With my list of 275 names, I then went back and looked at all the movies they have made in their career, ignoring TV, shorts, music videos and other non-movie output.

I opted for the gender-neutral usage of the word ‘actors’ as I don’t feel that gender has a role to play in the topic at hand.  We are looking at the diversity of productions a performer has worked on, and their gender is not a factor.  I.e. if either a male or a female actor works on 100% horror movies, they will be equally seen as a ‘horror’ actor.  That’s not to say that gender is not a factor for the film industry, as the uneven numbers within the 275 top actors show.

Movie data came from IMDb, Wikipedia and The Numbers. Genre classifications were from IMDb, which meant an average of 2.8 genres per movie.

Epilogue

This research has brought to my attention that there is something missing in the world.  I did not know I wanted this thing until the numbers told me I had been living my life without it.

Meryl Streep has never starred in an action movie.

Without bragging, I can say that my blog has a large readership within the film industry and among some top decision makers.  Therefore, I am asking – nay, begging – some of you to commit to this.  A few hundred million dollars is nothing to you and God knows you’ve often spent similar sums without adequate thought (*cough* Robin Hood *cough*).

Just as an opening suggestion, I am thinking that she plays a woman who lost her life savings in the financial crisis and resolves to take revenge on the banksters who caused it.

We’ll call it either “Meryl Lynch” or “Wall Streep”.

Who’s in?