By Darren Franich
Updated June 24, 2013 at 10:08 PM EDT

World War Z

  • Movie

Brad Pitt should feel triumphant today. He produced and starred in World War Z, a blockbuster zombie epic that spent the better part of its production cycle drowning in bad buzz. But after a salvage rewrite/reshoot and a full-scale publicity offensive, the film opened big over the weekend with $66 million.

That’s the biggest opening that Pitt’s ever had, and the studio is already making noise about fast-tracking a sequel. However, according to General Sentiment — a leading social analytics firm that analyzes more than 60 million sources of digital content every day — Pitt’s overall popularity may have actually taken a tumble over the last couple of years.

According to sentiment analysis — which examines not just mentions in social media, but also what people are saying — positive sentiment for Pitt reached a high point in late 2011 and early 2012, in the midst of his very busy Oscar season. He had the lead role in Moneyball, a critical and commercial success that garnered Pitt an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Pitt actually had two Best Picture nominees that year, thanks to his big role as the Dad/the Symbolic Father of Everything in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

On General Sentiment’s 100-point scale, a HIT score of 50 is neutral, a score of 51 and higher skews positive, while scores of 29 and lower skew more negative. On the scale, Pitt’s HIT score has been declining fairly steadily since that Oscar peak. That could be because, for most of that time period, pretty much the only news about Pitt was focused on Z‘s troubled production. (His only film roles were as a voice in Happy Feet Two and the hit man in the barely seen Killing Them Softly.) His HIT score crept back up toward the positive range at the start of the year, as the publicity blitz for World War Z began, but it hasn’t even come close to the Moneyball-era high. Weirdly, even as Z has opened, his HIT score was still very low. Check out the comparison here:

Of course, it’s also important to point out that considerably less people appear to be talking about Pitt; the overall volume of Pitt chatter is about half of what it was two years ago. It’s clear that people felt very positive about World War Z; it’s equally clear that those positive feelings don’t seem to have had very much to do with Pitt’s presence in the movie.

These numbers tell an interesting story about contemporary movie stardom — and, perhaps, the trickiness of starring in a major blockbuster movie. Moneyball and The Tree of Life couldn’t come close to the potential grosses of a PG-13 globetrotting zombie epic, but the two movies together did wonders for Pitt’s public image. Moneyball was an old-school star vehicle that depended on his unique charm; Tree of Life was an arty film that a few people loved very much, and which equally depended on his willingness to devote himself to his director’s unique vision. It could be that, by comparison, Pitt just seems less important in the context of World War Z: He’s playing a relatively straightforward Action Movie Protagonist. (Take out the character’s family, and the role could’ve belonged to Chris Pine, or Chris Evans, or Chris Hemsworth, or somebody who looks like they’re named Chris.)

People might feel differently as World War Z continues its run at the theaters, but looking at social media sentiment seems to indicate that Brad Pitt has been almost too good at making the jump into blockbuster movies: Like the many interchangeable young and inexpensive stars that populate franchise films, Pitt just might not be an important factor in his film’s success. Unlike those young and inexpensive stars, of course, Pitt’s his own producer. So if Brad Pitt the Hollywood Star has faded a bit in the last two years, Brad Pitt the Blockbuster Producer is probably very happy to give some credit to his zombie co-stars.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich.

Read more:

‘World War Z’ is actually the story of Brad Pitt

‘World War Z’ ending: Did the rewrites salvage the movie?

Box office preview: ‘Monsters University’ eyes a monstrous debut; ‘World War Z’ hopes to go viral

‘World War Z’: EW Review

Episode Recaps

World War Z

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 116 minutes