Ah, the good old days. The world was obsessed with a talking pig named Babe, the Unabomber was just a police sketch, and $20 million seemed like an enormous amount of money to pay Jim Carrey.
What a difference two years make. For a while, it looked like Carrey’s eye-popping Cable Guy bill, the talk of the industry in the summer of ’95, would be as high as A-list movie-star salaries would go. But soon, every top actor was asking for and getting the same price: Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, and John Travolta all quickly lined up and became $20 million men. And while studios managed to hold top salaries steady the past two years, there are signs that the $20 million cap is about to go the way of the $8 movie ticket.
According to a high-level insider, after dressing up for just six weeks in silver face paint for Warner Bros.’ Batman & Robin, Schwarzenegger quietly walked away with a cool $25 million. In another deal that would rise to that new high-water mark, Gibson reportedly is close to signing with Warner for a fourth Lethal Weapon; the insider, who has close ties to the studio, says Gibson’s take will be $25 million. And in a related move, Hollywood’s A-list women are upping the ante too. After rekindling her career with My Best Friend’s Wedding, for which Julia Roberts was paid $12 million — just under the current ceiling for actresses of $12.5 million, set by Demi Moore — the Pretty Woman‘s new asking price is said to be $14 million.
”Star salaries are going up again — and probably for everybody,” says producer Joe Singer (Daylight). ”Sure I’d love to pay less money, but it’s worth it if they bring in the box office.” And that apparently is the key. These days, box office is booming, primarily due to overseas sales. ”The worldwide market warrants these salaries,” says Ed McDonnell, president of Witt-Thomas Films. Even if, say, a Steven Seagal film bombs Stateside, it can still make a fortune as more and more cineplexes open abroad and tie-ins rake in revenue. Says Singer, ”The bottom line is more money is coming in.”
All that income isn’t good news just for the A listers. Sources say salaries for the likes of Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and Nicolas Cage — all of whom have summer hits — will definitely go up because of the new pay scale. Jones could get $15 million, while Cage and Smith are likely to join the $20 million club soon.
Predictably, no studio is willing to admit to being the one that ups the ante. For its part, Warner insists that Schwarzenegger made $20 million for Batman and that Gibson will get $20 million for Weapon 4. (Julia Roberts’ spokesperson would not comment on her asking price.) Notably, top execs at Warner were among the most vocal of those who criticized then-Columbia TriStar head Mark Canton for starting the salary spiral with Carrey’s contract. Says a source, ”Publicly, all the studios will say they’re not going past $20 million in light of the heat that came down [on Canton].”