If you’re tired of hearing about all those big Hollywood salaries in the middle of a recession, you may be getting a reprieve. Despite joyous tidings from the Christmas box office, Hollywood is pulling in the reins on spending, and studio executives are starting with the inflated wages of second-tier actors.
Nobody’s talking about such global box office draws as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, or Harrison Ford, but the stars who don’t guarantee substantial opening weekend audiences are getting creamed. ”Agents aren’t going to tell their clients, ‘Hey, your fee is high,’ so the studios just aren’t sending them offers,” says one agent. ”Disney isn’t going to offer $5 million to Richard Dreyfuss now, even though he got that for What About Bob? (because Bill Murray got $8 million). No one’s going to call Jeff Bridges and offer him the $3 million he got for The Fisher King. No one’s going to offer $4.5 million to Paul Newman, which is what he got for Blaze.”
Except for Distinguished Gentleman’s Eddie Murphy, Disney, for one, has virtually stopped anteing up for major stars, relying instead on such low- star, high-concept winners as the $11 million thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which is already heading into profit after only two weeks of release. The other studios are following Disney’s tough line. After last year’s Havana debacle, Robert Redford chose to forgo an up-front fee and accept a gross-percentage deal for Universal’s Sneakers. Rising star Alec Baldwin nickel-and-dimed himself right out of the lead role in Paramount’s Patriot Games, losing the part to first-tier star Harrison Ford. Baldwin promptly signed with Creative Artists Agency, Hollywood’s brick hit house.
Meryl Streep is also looking to CAA, her new agency, to improve her fortunes. She took a $2 million pay cut (from the flop Defending Your Life) to star with Goldie Hawn in the CAA package Death Becomes Her. Both top-billed actresses need commercial vehicles to prove their box office value. Universal paid the pair $3 million each for the Bob Zemeckis-directed black comedy. But when Kevin Kline demanded parity with his costars — a substantial raise-he lost the part. Kline went on to accept an offer from Disney’s Hollywood Pictures for substantially less than $3 million to star in the Alan Pakula drama Consenting Adults. CAA, which represents the director, Streep, Hawn, and Kline, promptly supplied an eager replacement: Bruce Willis.
Still in shock from the barrage of negative publicity he has endured since the belly flop of his pet Hudson Hawk project, Willis agreed to work for zero up-front money. Instead he’s taking 5 percent of the gross, which may not be insignificant: If the movie does $60 million at the box office, Willis will get the $3 million Kline demanded. Judging by Zemeckis’ $1 billion-plus track record worldwide (from Romancing the Stone, three Back to the Futures, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), that outcome is not farfetched. This way, Willis doesn’t risk any ribbing on either the inflation or diminution of his salary. He lets the good old American free market determine his ultimate value.
His solution to Hollywood’s anti-recession drive could be the wave of the future. ”We’ll be seeing a lot more of these reduced deals,” says one agent, ”with no money up front and rich back ends. Who’s going to pay Sylvester Stallone $15 million?” Thought you’d never ask.