Scarlett Johansson is among the celebrities forced to take dramatic pay cuts
The curtain has come down on guaranteed $20 million pay cheques for A-List Hollywood stars as a series of films starring big name actors failed to deliver at the box office this summer. Denzel Washington, Jim Carrey, Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke are among the celluloid celebrities forced to take dramatic pay cuts or accept a slice of any future movie profits as studios have achieved ticket sale success without a famous name attached.
The three biggest US films of the summer have been the latest versions of the Transformer and Harry Potter franchises, starring newcomers Shia LaBoeuf and Daniel Radcliffe, and a computer-animated Pixar offering, Up.
But Duplicity (with Julia Roberts), Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell), Imagine That (Edddie Murphy), Funny People (Adam Sandler), Public Enemies (Johnny Depp), The Taking of Pelham 123 (Washington and John Travolta) and even Angels & Demons (Tom Hanks) brought in sales that varied from average to abysmal.
The one movie luminary to live up to his billing for drawing audiences has been Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds – the new violence-packed Quentin Tarantino number that took in $38 million last weekend.
“In the past, studios believed that if they wanted a box office hit, they needed a big star for presence and visibility,” Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Pictures production company and former studio chief at Sony Pictures, with films such as Midnight Express, Rain Man and batman to his name, told The Sunday Telegraph.
“But this year, we’ve had a summer filled with sequels, remakes and franchises that don’t come with big names. There are still very talented stars of course but not every movie needs them for commercial success.”
The tough economic climate started the transformation but the revolution in technology and social networking has driven home the fundamental upheavals this summer.
For studios reeling from the collapse in lucrative DVD sales, this box office trend has given them the chance to redress the bargaining balance with stars – known in the business as “talent” – and their representatives. Agents used to deliver take-it-or-leave-it financial demands, but now it is studios that set the price.
In Hollywood, there is usually a code of omerta among all parties when it comes to talking specific numbers. But a rare spat over salaries became public recently when Washington, an Oscar winner who only recently joined the $20 million club, reluctantly agreed a reduced pay cheque for a 20th Century Fox project after initially threatening to walk away.
Disney reportedly ditched Julia Roberts for Sandra Bullock when she would not cut her salary – believed to be around the $15 million mark until recently – to star in the recent comedy hit The Proposal.
Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke apparently accepted $400,000 each plus a take of profits to appear in Iron Man 2. And Jim Carrey has foregone any cheque upfront, instead agreeing to pocket 30 per cent of profits for a recent project, according to Hollywood insiders discussing the movie Yes Man.
“There’s not only a recession in the economy, there’s a recession in star power,” said James Ulmer, founder of the Ulmer Scale that ranks the star power of actors by a range of measures. “We’re coming into a period where the content is the driver of the box office, rather than the stars themselves.”
A radical re-think of the industry is underway, said Sebastian Doggart, an independent British producer who has won several awards this year for his film Courting Condi.
“The studios are facing structural collapse and need to cut their overheads – of which stars are the biggest,” he said.
He was at Cannes film festival recently where the normal procedure for film financing collapsed – get a star attached, get foreign sales advance, get bank financing, then get private equity financing. But there were no fgn sales at Cannes and that halts the whole cycle.
There have been some notable exceptions to the trend. Will Smith is still regarded as cast-iron guarantee of a box office hit among the ranks of male stars. But most striking is the emergence of Meryl Streep as the stand-out star in female ranks – Devil Wears Prada, Mama Mia, Doubt and Julie and Julia.
A number of developments of the modern age are driving this revolution, including the blanket round-the clock coverage of film celebrities in the media and on the internet.
“The big stars guarantee publicity, as opposed to an audience,” said industry watcher Stephen Galloway, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “But any form of royalty, and stars are a form of royalty, is dependent on mystery, and on rationing out their presence. Now that these big stars are everywhere, they’re less appealing to us. It dilutes people’s interest.”
Young men, the dominant force for Hollywood blockbusters for generations, are losing interest in big name movies as they find their entertainment elsewhere – the internet, video games and iPhone applications – usually without having to leave their sofas.
And social networking is also transforming the market for opening weekends – the biggest grosser for virtually every film – as cinema-goers spread their verdicts on a new film from inside the cinema by Twitter or Facebook. (Article continues below)
Mr Galloway said: “Twitter has also revolutionised the business overnight. Word of mouth about films used to spread, but fairly slowly: now the minute one person sees a movie, he ‘tweets’ his 100 friends, they ‘tweet’ their 100 friends – in literally seconds word has spread that it’s a stinker.”
“Verdicts are no longer spread by word of mouth but by word of internet,” said Mr Guber. “The glow you see in a movie theatre now is not from the big screen up front but from their handheld devices as they transmit their views around the world.”
Mr Guber said: “At the moment the stars are still holding out for those big sums they used to earn, but many of them are, I’d imagine, being paid half to two-thirds of what they were being getting two years ago. Some studios are also offering a bigger guarantee from the back end, the profits, and this is one of the things that’s being discussed – that the stars need to be investors, investing their salaries into films to make sure they go ahead.”