The actors who are the best (and worst) at their job

A data analysis of 35k+ critical reviews and box office figures

In nearly every field of work, our job performance is measured, judged, and quantified.

The actors who are the best (and worst) at their job

Salespeople are ranked based on monthly quotas. Bloggers have to hit pageview targets. Marketers are beholden to conversion rates and a neverending hellscape of KPIs.

The same is true for Hollywood’s leading actors.

Stars who grace the silver screen generally either have to be a hit with fans (measured by box office revenue) or a hit with critics (measured by positive reviews). Some actors excel in both categories. Others’ success is predicated almost entirely on one of these two factors. And some fall flat on both fronts. 

We wanted to see who is in each of these camps. So, we obtained two huge sets of data:

  1. Average Metacritic scores (a measurement of critical ratings) across all films for 35k+ actors
  2. Average domestic box office data across all films an actor has played a prominent role in over their career

Here’s what we found.

Critical reviews

Metacritic is a website that aggregates reviews from established movie critics and uses a formula to create a composite score. The scores range from 0 (absolutely terrible) to 100 (universal applause).

The folks at Metacritic provided The Hustle with an enormous list of actors’ average score across their entire catalog of films. They filtered out ratings for any TV or production roles (we wanted to focus on films), and we further limited the list to actors with 10+ credits who are still actively making movies.

It should be acknowledged that film ratings aren’t a perfect proxy for measuring an individual actor’s job performance. Sometimes, good actors are in bad films. But looking across an actor’s entire catalog still provides some insight into the types of roles they tend to take on.

Across all actors, the average score is 54. But as you can see below, many actors are far from average — in both directions.

The Hustle

Looking solely at critical reviews, Daniel Day-Lewis is the clear frontrunner. This isn’t really surprising. After all, the man has won three Academy Awards in the Best Actor category.

Another high ranker here is Lupita Nyong’o, whose impressive catalog of films includes 12 Years a Slave (96 Metacritic score), Black Panther (88), and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (84).

A majority of actors on the left side of this chart have won, or been nominated for, an Academy Award.

The other end of the spectrum is less impressive.

In general, critics seem to have a bias against comedy films. And comedians (Katt Williams, Kevin James, George Lopez) fare very poorly on this list.

Critics also seem to be immune to horniness: Many actors marketed as heartthrobs (Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Alba, Megan Fox) fall far short of the average score.

But critical reception is just one measurement of actors’ skills.

Box office

Next, we turned to the entertainment data site The Numbers to compile the average domestic box office across actors’ entire catalogs.

This data has a few flaws. For starters, it’s not adjusted for inflation, so we tried to filter out actors who predominantly starred in films that were made 20+ years ago. We also focused on domestic data, since the international market tends to (even more) heavily favor franchise films.

Streaming has also put pressure on the traditional ticket sales that box office figures are based on — though that threat may be oversold a bit.

Actors in our dataset averaged ~$41m per film at the box office. (Note: This is significantly higher than the overall industry average in recent years, and is likely skewed by huge blockbusters).

The Hustle

This category is dominated by actors in Marvel films — Black Panther, Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, and Captain America. Actors in the Avengers franchise (Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans) have particularly high box office averages.

We also see other franchise favorites well-represented here, like The Fast and the Furious (Vin Diesel), and Harry Potter (Emma Watson, Rupert Grint).

The lower end is populated with some names you may not have heard from. Many of these actors star in horror films with names like The Midnight Meat Train (Vinnie Jones).

But box office alone is not an indicator of performance or skill. In many instances, actors make a career decision to be in more artistic (and small-grossing) films, like Emily the Criminal (Aubrey Plaza), and My Salinger Year (Margaret Qualley).

To more accurately assess the skill of actors, we have to mash together both critical reviews and box office.

The beloved actor matrix

In the chart below, each dot represents one actor, ranked both by average Metacritc score (x-axis) and average domestic box office (y-axis).

The Hustle

There are some serious outliers here — and each quadrant tells a different story:

  • Bottom left: Actors like Rob Schnieder, tell an unfortunate story: They have both below average reviews and below average box office results.
  • Top right: Actors like Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright have the best of both worlds: Strong critical reviews and strong box office results.
  • Bottom right: This is where the true artisans lie — actors with near-universal critical acclaim, but below average box office scores.
  • Top left: The likes of Kevin James and Taylor Lautner have very high box office averages, but fall short of critics’ demands.

We wanted to create a ranking system to better understand these results.

So, we weighted how each actor stacked up against their peers. Each actor was assigned a percentile for their box office and critical performance. For example:

  • Kevin Hart’s average film grossed ~$71m domestically, which ranks in the 90th percentile. His average Metascore is 46.3, which ranks in the 15th percentile.

To get a rough approximation of the actors who are popular with movie-goers, but not so much with critics, we subtracted the Metacritic percentile from the box office score.

The Hustle

Many fan-favorites grace this list — Kevin James, Will Ferrell, Dwayne Johnson — but that fandom doesn’t include critics.

Taylor Lautner may’ve raked in the big bucks from his starring role in theTwilight saga, but he hasn’t had as much luck convincing critics of the artistic merit of shirtless vampires.

Another familiar face here is Adam Sandler, who has openly admitted that he knows he’ll get bad reviews every time he makes a film — and who has unabashedly descended even deeper into the abyss of cringe-worthy cinema.

Next, we took a look at actors on the other side, who curry favor with critics but haven’t quite cracked the code for box office success.

The Hustle

There are a few caveats with this list. Timothée Chalamet, for instance, has gravitated from indie films like Lady Bird to big-box films like Dune and Wonka. Films like that are sure to bring up his box office average in the future.

There’s also Pete Davidson, the rare comedian on this list. Unlike many of his comedy peers, he’s resonated with critics but not with mass audiences, at least yet.   

But by and large, we see a lot of indie actors here, some of whom have made an implicit decision to stay small and artsy, and others who just haven’t had their big break for whatever reason.

The final ranking

Lastly, we combined the percentiles for box office and Metacritic into one composite score for each actor. 

Again, this approach is far from perfect, but it provides a barometer for how successful actors are at their jobs — at least, by traditional industry standards.

Across the board, the average actor had a composite score of 105 points.

Among the actors who have the best combination of box office success and critical success:

  • Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Lupita Nyong’o
  • Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Tom Hanks
  • Adam Driver

And the actors who have the worst combination of the two:

  • Bella Thorne
  • Chad Michael Murray
  • Denise Richards
  • Dax Shephard
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme

Of course, at the end of the day, this is all subjective. There are plenty of people out there who love Jean-Claude Van Damme films, right?


Topics: Entertainment

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