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Punching the Numbers: Where Liam Neeson Lies in the History of “Hollywood’s Most Bankable Action Star” Runs

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Liam Neeson is Hollywood’s most bankable action star. That’s a statement of fact, but how do we know it is fact? How much more bankable is he than others? First off, we take a look at the box office returns for his action films and match them against the budgets and see what sort of averages and trends pop up.

1st Disclosure: I am not a sabermetrics genius, I’m just a guy that likes to write about action movies. If somebody out there who is a sabermetrics genius saw this and said “There’s a better way to do this.”, it would only bring me joy to see my amateur work improved upon.

2nd Disclosure: I won’t be including results of The Grey and A Walk Among the Tombstones in this pool of data, while both were marketed as action vehicles and have moments of action in them, they are by no means action films. The Grey is an existential meditation on man’s will to live, and A Walk Among the Tombstones is a nasty and dark character study of darkness. I also won’t be counting Battleship, because Liam Neeson is only in that movie for like 5 minutes and has no moments of action. He doesn’t even get the one-liner “YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP.” Waste of Neeson.

Liam Neeson has 9 action films in his dominant run of “Hollywood’s Most Bankable Action Star”. 6 of those films featured him as a lead, while 3 of them featured him in an ensemble. That’s a strong 2/3rds of his run spent in leading action hero status. His budgets add up to a combined $633 million, with the average budget lying at $70.3 million. Hollywood is putting their estates on mortgage to finance his stuff.

Now for his domestic box office takes, they all add up to about $877 million, and they average out about $97.4 million each. He’s averaging a profit each time, and we haven’t even gotten to foreign performance yet. Foreign intakes add up to about $1.37 billion, averaging at $153 million a film. Add them all together, and worldwide you have a total of $2.3 billion combined, with $258 million being the average worldwide return for each film. That’s over 3 times the average budget for his films. It’s an average $187 million profit from budget to return. Anybody that bought Liam Neeson stock over these past 6 years is making bank.

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Now it’s time to compare his leading action films and his ensemble role action films. His leading films have a combined total of $1.3 billion in returns, averaging $224.8 million in returns per film. Match that against the average budget of a Neeson-fronted film in $41.3 million, and you’ve got money.

Even when he’s just part of an ensemble, he’s still winning. His three ensemble films have rakes in $975. 6 million worldwide combined, just shy of a billion. Those films have an average return of $325.2 million, matched up against an average budget of $128.3 million. Basically, the more money you put into Liam Neeson, the bigger return you stand to get. Few actors in Hollywood can offer that security. The only two films in his action stardom filmography that don’t make boardroom’s clap in celebration are Run All Night (Just $66 million worldwide against a $50 million budget) and Joe Carnahan’s supremely misunderstood The A-Team (Only $177.2 million worldwide against a huge $110 million budget).

So now that we know that no matter what variable you throw in, Liam Neeson will make you millions with his fists, the question is – when was the last time an action star was this dominant?

To keep the data from getting too skewed, we’re going to take 9-film segments of action stardom from 2 of the most profitable/iconic action stars and see how they stack up against Neeson’s numbers. The final determining number that will pit the two action heroes against each other is their average profit, meaning how much their films profited after subtracting the budget from the worldwide returns. To keep in line with sabermetrics, think of it as our own version of the Baseball stat WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which calculates the amount of wins a player contributes to against the league average. As a reminder, Neeson’s average profit is $187 million.

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Arnold Schwarzenneger’s 9 film run that we’ll be dissecting goes from 1984 – 1991, a decade of dominance. Films included are The Terminator, Red Sonja, Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, Red Heat, Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. We start with The Terminator, as that was his highest grossing action film up to that point ($78 million against just $6.4 million – inflation adjusted that’s $178.5 return against a $14.65 budget), and maintained a steady dominance all the way through the film’s sequel. His numbers come out to (again, adjusted for inflation), his average budget was $60.2 million, his total worldwide intake $2.09 billion, his average worldwide intake $232.5 million, putting his average profit at $172.3 million. Neeson wins by roughly $15 million.

Can Stallone beat Neeson? We’re looking at 1982-1995. The films are First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Cobra, Rambo 3, Tango & Cash, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist and Judge Dredd. The results have also been adjusted for inflation. His average budget is $89.03 million in that timeline, his average worldwide return of $327.9 million, making his average profit $238.87.

Well, I suppose somebody would eventually beat Neeson in world’s most profitable run of action films, but these results don’t talk down on his power. Neeson is more powerful than peak Schwarzenegger was. By this data here, there hasn’t been a run of profitable action stardom like this since Stallone’s heyday, and that’s significant. Yet, I want to make perfectly clear that the numbers we tested are a very small pool amongst an ocean of information. It’s worth noting that there are dozens of 9-film action runs that we didn’t test Neeson against. It’s also worth noting that what qualifies as an action film for you will skew the data and give you significantly different results. Another thing to consider is the question of how you differentiate box office performance for lead roles against ensemble roles, which is something we did not do when compiling these numbers. Does one count more than the other, and if so, how much more? Once that is determined, you could start figuring out how this applies to The Rock Enigma. But either way you skew the data, and whomever you put Neeson’s figures up against, one thing is for sure – Neeson is going to come out strong. Like, “Hollywood’s Most Bankable Action Star” strong.


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