Movie stars aren't getting paid for performance

Jennifer Lawrence
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Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence was the top-paid actress for the second straight year, while Dwayne Johnson was the top paid actor, Forbes magazine said this week.

But if you're a movie investor, and you want to make the most efficient use of your dollars, there's a different list you should care about more: The stars that bring in the most money.

It's no different than analyzing hedge fund managers or professional athletes — it's one thing to get paid a lot, but a whole other thing in assessing who really should be getting paid the most.

So far in 2016, the highest-grossing stars were Lawrence, Shailene Woodley, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Vin Diesel. That's according to The Numbers, a Hollywood-based data company run by Bruce Nash. His mathematical analysis of movies is information producers and investors pay a lot of money for, to help them make cost-efficient casting decisions and more accurately assess the value of a project.

Below are the top 20 highest-grossing stars of the past year, but notice how cracking the Forbes list isn't automatic:

"This chart really pulls out who the biggest draws are at the box office at any given time, which would presumably correspond to the top-paid performers," said Nash.

The Numbers' Star Score is a metric created to rank leading stars appearing in the top movies each year. It rewards actors for appearing in several hit films in recent years, while an actor's gross income could be boosted by just a single major blockbuster.

As we know from other high-profile industries, the highest-paid people are often not the most impactful. LeBron James in his career so far has never been the highest-paid player in the NBA. The highest-paid CEOs are generally not the best-performing ones. The analogies go on and on, and so it is with movies.

In its data, Forbes does include endorsement income, which is why it lists Jennifer Aniston.

"The Forbes list really highlights the difference between being a successful actor or actress and being a 'celebrity,'" Nash said. "For actresses in particular, there's as much or more money to be made from advertising and endorsements as there is from acting in films, and that comes down to establishing yourself as a brand."

Among the actresses, only Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson and Melissa McCarthy made both the Forbes and The Numbers top lists. Among actors, Diesel, Johnson, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt made both.

Up-and-coming stars often get underpaid before they break out big as a household name.

"That's the challenge for someone like Shailene Woodley," Nash said. "She is comfortably one of the top-performing actresses at the box office right now, but doesn't have the celebrity factor yet of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy or Julia Roberts."