There are articles all the time about movie star pay, but they rarely come from the understanding that movie stars are perhaps the biggest single factor in selling a movie. If you’re putting millions of dollars into a property, having stars in it virtually guarantees a certain amount of box office and overseas sales. It protects the downside, as they say.
“For years, top movie stars often landed deals paying them a percentage — sometimes as much as 20% — of a studio’s take of box-office revenues from the first dollar the movie makes, even if it turned out to be a flop that cost the studio millions. As a result, the biggest celebrities broke the $20 million mark. Eddie Murphy got that kind of payday for the flop “Meet Dave,” which cost Twentieth Century Fox about $70 million and took in only $11.8 million at the domestic box office.”
Simple math will tell you that 20% of $11.8 million does not equal $20 million. Murphy may have indeed made more than $20 million for Meet Dave (because life is not fair), but it’s not because of what (as Schuker litters her piece with) a “first dollar gross” deal. So before she or another reporter tries to tackle the issue of movie star pay, here is a quick run-down of the kind of movie deals that studios make with talent.
So the biggest line item on a movie budget is usually actor pay. The inflation of this line item is what the Hollywood studios are always fighting. But the agencies basically have them over a barrel. Because having a star in the movie makes it marketable (and, to a lesser extent, a few big-name directors are marketable). In certain genres, like horror, stars seem to matter less. That’s why the genre movies are the province of the mini-majors.
What the studios, which are just small parts of multi-media conglomerations, often don’t seem to get is that stars can be made. Disney, when promoting Enchanted, put Amy Adams on every magazine, every t.v. show in the vast corporate empire. Now she’s a household name; whereas her Oscar-nominated performance in Junebug did not lift her from obscurity. Paris Hilton, famously, became famous for being famous. It’s cheaper to make a star than buy one, so look for the marketing budgets to get bigger and the star salaries to get smaller, but not by much.
It just isn’t a story that stars get paid a lot. I wish audiences were smarter and didn’t pay money to see a movie just because Ashton Kutcher is in it. But they do. And as long as they do, studios will shell out the big bucks.