Earlier this year, a scary thing happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone: They became expendable for audiences, at least when starring in movies not called "The Expendables."
Schwarzengger, 65, back in front of the camera in a leading role for the first time since 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" weathered his worst opening in 27 years with "The Last Stand." The action film earned just over $12 million overall, a tally even lower than Schwarzenegger's much-maligned 1996 flop "Jingle All The Way" grossed during its opening weekend. Stallone, 66, didn't fare much better with "Bullet to the Head," which earned just $9.4 million at the North American box office, roughly three times less than the Stallone bomb "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" pulled down in 1992. Added together, "The Last Stand" and "Bullet to the Head" totaled $21 million in North America, a far cry from the $85 million the pair earned together in "The Expendables 2" last August.
Even fellow "Expendables" cast member Bruce Willis, 58, an A-list star who made a career balancing blockbusters like "Armageddon" with indie releases like "Moonrise Kingdom," stumbled this year. Willis' fifth "Die Hard" film, "A Good Day To Die Hard," grossed just $24 million during its opening salvo; overall, the film has earned only $66 million in North America thus far, about half of what the last "Die Hard," "Live Free or Die Hard," grabbed from ticket buyers in 2007. (Willis still has muscles overseas; "A Good Day To Die Hard," which takes place in Russia, has earned $219 million in foreign ticket sales.)
"Time was that these guys were box office gold regardless of the movie, but today's entertainment landscape is exponentially more competitive than it was 25 years ago when these guys were in their heyday," Hollywood.com box office expert Paul Dergarabedian told HuffPost Entertainment. "The movies they star in (and their concepts) have to be spot on to grab contemporary audiences."
Which doesn't necessarily mean that the movies have to be good, just marketed in a way that makes audiences want to show up. Take "Olympus Has Fallen" with former box office pariah Gerard Butler in the leading role. Despite many negative reviews and a star with a conga line of flops over the last five years, the film earned $30 million during its opening weekend -- just $5 million less than the openings of "The Last Stand," "Bullet to the Head" and "A Good Die To Die Hard" combined.
"The marketing was terrific and Butler's willingness to stump for the movie was also a key factor in its ability to perform at nearly $10 million above opening weekend expectations," Dergarabedian said. "Also, the concept of the movie was cool (shades of 'Air Force One') and they had a good release date as perfect counter-programming to the kid-friendly animated film 'The Croods.'"
The same couldn't really be said for "The Last Stand" or "Bullet to the Head," two action films that never looked like anything more than the type of cable movie your father might fall asleep watching on Friday night.
"People need a compelling argument in order to open their wallets and that could include an intriguing story, an exciting trailer, unique special effects, or a combination of it all," Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru, told HuffPost Entertainment.
As Pandya noted, it's not just aging action heroes dealing with the increasingly fickle nature of the audience; Tom Cruise and Matt Damon also watched their recent films flop, lending credence to the idea that movie stars are as obsolete as Blackberrys. Wrote Mark Harris in a GQ piece about the new rules for leading men:
If, in 2013, our primary allegiances are to genres and concepts and properties rather than to people, if our biggest modern movie stars are Batman and Bourne and Wolverine and James Bond, and if the most a flesh-and-blood actor can hope is to be chosen to serve as the temporary avatar for one of those characters, then what meaning can the term movie star possibly have?
Harris concluded that "movie star" has plenty of meaning, which is true; it's not the same meaning Stallone and Schwarzenegger might be used.
"You can't just count on your brand name anymore," Dergarabedian said.
This story appears in Issue 48 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 10.