Lest anyone be fooled by 1995’s box office numbers — a record $5.4 billion in ticket sales, and nine movies topping the $100 million mark — keep in mind this verdict from the studios themselves: Hollywood is flirting with disaster. ”It’s a suicidal business,” complains Twentieth Century Fox film president Bill Mechanic. ”There are no low budgets anymore. Star costs are out of control.”
Of course, it’s easy to blame big salaries for escalating budgets: 1995 was the year in which Jim Carrey sealed a $20 million deal — and so did Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. No doubt others will follow. Price tags like those have boosted the average studio movie budget to $34 million, plus $26 million to market and distribute. But the studios have other reasons to berate themselves. They put too many films out at once (of the movies released over the holiday season, only four were smash profit makers) and they flogged audiences into indifference with the overexposed, overpriced action genre. Sure, 1995 saw its share of kaboom!-driven hits, including Fox’s Die Hard With a Vengeance (which made $354 million worldwide to become the year’s biggest international success), MGM’s series-rejuvenating Goldeneye, and Waterworld, which, with a global take of $254 million, would have been a smash if Universal hadn’t let costs balloon to a ludicrous $175 million.
But look at what’s left in the rubble. Carolco’s $92 million Cutthroat Island helped sink the company and stands as one of the biggest money losers in film history. Action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal went limp in films like Judge Dredd, Assassins, Sudden Death, and Under Siege 2. And forget about trying to spruce up the genre with women: Lori Petty (Tank Girl), Sharon Stone (The Quick and the Dead), Angela Bassett (Strange Days), and Cindy Crawford (Fair Game) all proved they could bomb like the boys.
So what’s making money? It helps to have Tom Hanks seen (or at least heard); Apollo 13, an action film fueled by real-life drama rather than cartoony heroics, and Toy Story, one of the year’s few films in which the heroics were intentionally cartoony, were two of the year’s three biggest hits. Can’t get Hanks? Then keep costs down. The money machines While You Were Sleeping, The Bridges of Madison County, Clueless, and Waiting to Exhale combined cost less than half of what was spent on Waterworld. ”We have to make more Babes that work on a worldwide basis,” says MCA vice chairman Tom Pollock, ”without paying out humongous salaries.”
Meanwhile, MCA will drop $20 million on Carrey to star in the comedy Liar, Liar, and for all the talk about out-of-control costs, there probably isn’t a studio in Hollywood that wouldn’t happily cut Carrey the same check. The problem is that for every marquee name that pays off, there’s a Sabrina, a First Knight, or a Money Train to write off — and the next Cutthroat Island is probably already visible on the horizon. ”Everyone needs to wake up with chills in their bones,” says Mechanic. ”It’s time to get real and fix what’s broken.”