Cover Story

Are The Stars Worth Their Salaries?

From 20 million for Jim Carrey to 6 million for Chris Farley, Hollywood paychecks are getting grosser by the minute

The president of the United States makes $200,000 a year. A Supreme Court justice gets $170,000. The British prime minister earns $123,000. And Charlie Sheen? He takes home $5.2 million.

Granted, William Rehnquist would have bombed in Terminal Velocity too, but something is clearly wrong with this picture. Hollywood is caught in a salary-inflation cycle that's so out of control it would have Alan Greenspan weeping into his spreadsheets. Even rinky-dink actors are signing seven-figure deals these days, while top stars are pocketing unprecedented eight-digit sums. Just look at the numbers. Jim Carrey: $20 million a picture. Bruce Willis: $16.5 million. Robin Williams: $15 million. Demi Moore: $12.5 million. Kurt Russell: $10 million. George Clooney: $10 million. Keanu Reeves: $9 million. Even Alicia Silverstone is turning out to be not so clueless after all: She demanded and got $3 million for her next movie.

Never before has Hollywood paid so much to so many for seemingly so little — a fact that sometimes dazes even the stars themselves. ''It's definitely strange to think about,'' says Tom Cruise, who just nabbed $20 million to appear in Jerry Maguire, a comedy due next year. ''It's like we're living in another galaxy. It seems so unreal that we would make this much.''

Why are the studios writing such gigantic checks? What effect are the big bucks having on the movie business? Where is all the cash coming from? How do we get some? These are the $64,000-an-hour questions.

Of course, movie stars have always made piles of money. Even back in the silent era, Charlie Chaplin signed a million-dollar contract. But over the last few years, the numbers have grown horrific. When Bruce Willis was given $5 million to appear in 1988's Die Hard, it was considered a shocking deal, an unimaginable amount for a TV star. Today, $5 million doesn't even buy Chris Farley.

Everyone has a theory about what's fueling the skyrocketing salaries. Some see it as basic economics: More movies are being made, while the number of stars remains more or less fixed. In other words, increased demand plus finite supply equals an $18 million deposit in Michael Douglas' bank account. Others point to video and overseas sales, which have pumped so much cash into Hollywood that the studios literally don't know how to spend it all.

And then there's the Mark Canton theory, which pretty much pins all the blame on the head of Columbia TriStar Pictures. Last summer, Canton had half of Hollywood choking on their double decaf nonfat lattes when he announced he was paying Jim Carrey $20 million — nearly double what megastars like Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford had been earning — to appear in the comedy Cable Guy (opening June 14). Suddenly, every actor in town was demanding a raise. Even John Travolta upped his asking price to $21 million (he had to settle for $20 million). Not surprisingly, the Carrey deal did not make Canton wildly popular with his counterparts at other studios. ''Columbia is a mess,'' says a Twentieth Century Fox executive. ''There's nothing nice you can say about it. They've set something in motion that ratchets up the entire business. They'll self-destruct the industry.''

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