AlamyFrom left: Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. His face doesn’t often grace magazine covers, and he’s not a frequent target of paparazzi. In the public mind, his star power doesn’t even come close to the wattage of Pitt, Depp, or Clooney. Yet, despite the relatively low profile, he’s a serious box office draw — the films he appeared in this year collectively grossed the most out of any male actor.
Can you guess the identity of this under-the-radar marquee entertainer?
A Main-Event Performer
Take a bow, professional wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson (aka “The Rock”). You had the Midas touch in 2013.
Surprised? Don’t be. Johnson has been a busy man in front of the cameras lately, appearing in four theatrical features released this year plus a straight-to-video effort. Two of the theatrical offerings were notable hits, raking in nine-figure box office sales.
The monster success of the two was “Fast & Furious 6,” the latest installment of the car-thief saga in which he played a supporting role. Worldwide, the film took in a fat $789 million in ticket receipts, $239 million of which came from domestic box office. So far, this puts it at No. 7 on the list of highest-domestic-grossing titles of the year.
Johnson’s other 2013 theatrical releases didn’t reach the lofty heights of “F&F 6,” but they still did strong business. Cartoony action flick “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” made $376 million worldwide on a production budget of $130 million. “Pain and Gain,” meanwhile, aped its bodybuilder characters with a pumped-up gross of $86 million against a relatively skinny $26 million in production costs. Those numbers for “Snitch” were $43 million and an estimated $15 million, respectively.
All told, according to figures compiled by Forbes, films with Johnson in the cast list grossed $1.3 billion this year.
Role Model: From Jules Verne to G.I. Joe
What makes Johnson such a box office magnet? Being prolific certainly helps, but that’s not the only thing going for him. He also seems to have a knack for picking juicy projects. Most of these are in the action/adventure genre, which draws the young audiences the studios are so eager to attract. This type of movie also performs well in international markets. Even better, the brawny actor has been able to hook onto action franchises with proven track records, such as the “Fast & Furious” and “G.I. Joe” series.
Flexibility is another big factor; Johnson has a relaxed, appealing charm that can play well in other genres. As a result he’s landed roles in romantic comedies (2010’s “You Again”) and movies aimed at the kid set (last year’s Jules Verne adaptation “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”).
Unlike many top Hollywood names, Johnson is flexible in terms of position on the cast list — he often functions as the second or even third banana to the protagonist, but he’s also held the lead role in a number of his films.
The Studios Smell What The Rock Is Cookin’
Hollywood loves a bankable name actor who can fit into a variety of projects. Several of the industry’s big players have already reaped the benefits of working with Johnson, and they’ll continue to do so.
Comcast’s (CMCSA) Universal has been the distributor of the “Fast & Furious” series from its inception in 2001, and is undoubtedly happy to have Johnson in the cast for the seventh installment, slated for release next year.
Viacom’s (VIA) Paramount also has a piece of The Rock with one of its tentpole movies for next summer. It’s depending on him to deliver as the title character in “Hercules,” the latest film depiction of the legendary Greek hero. Johnson will be in good company, being directed by action veteran Brett Ratner and joined in the cast by reliable actors like John Hurt and Ian McShane. Meanwhile, the media firm will keep itself busy plotting the next move for G.I. Joe; it’s distributed both titles in that series.
And of course, we shouldn’t rule out some kind of appearance in a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) production. Johnson — sorry, The Rock — made his name with the company, and has maintained a good relationship with it. He competed in several matches earlier this year, even taking the championship before going down in defeat in the firm’s annual extravaganza, WrestleMania.
Injuries suffered in that match will keep him away from the ring for at least some time, but he could always put in a non-wrestling guest appearance. Or he could appear in one of the action flicks WWE’s film unit produces or co-produces from time to time (such as the 2004 effort “Walking Tall,” in which he played the lead role).
Because he gravitates toward crowd-pleaser movies, Johnson probably won’t ever be considered a “legitimate” (read: serious) actor. Nevertheless, he’s a reliable performer with a lot of stamina, charisma, and a presence that helps fill theater seats. Look for him to pop up in many more films in the near future, and don’t be shocked if he tops the male movie star chart again.
Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman owns shares of World Wrestling Entertainment. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.