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The Hollywood blues

Thanks to expensive A-List stars like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, costly studio flops, and ballooning budgets, Tinseltown’s power brokers begin to tighten belts

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In Hollywood these days, it’s not just directors who are calling ”Cut!” After years of wretched excess, the studios’ free-spending fat cats are only now learning to tighten their Gucci belts.

Over their Cobb salads at Beverly Hills’ clubby boite The Grill, pink-slipped players can be heard swapping stories about the new austerity. There’s DreamWorks’ gutsy decision to replace Brad Pitt, who earns $15 million, with Billy Crudup, who reportedly gets just $1 million, as the lead in the upcoming Cameron Crowe rock movie. Over at Universal, moving vans now outnumber tour trolleys: The studio has recently slashed its movie output from 20 films per year to 12 and is letting deals with producing teams like Airplane!‘s Zucker brothers expire. The stock-challenged Disney, meanwhile, has cut its film slate from more than 30 movies to less than 20.

Despite a flush U.S. economy and a box office that seemingly shatters records on an hourly basis, the profligacy capital of the planet is no longer getting piggy with it. Why? Years of skyrocketing star salaries, out-of-control event movies, and jaw-dropping marketing costs have made it mission impossible for studios to eke out a living. With profit margins across Tinseltown eroding significantly, the studios are being forced to trim budgets and contain costs — or risk pricing themselves out of business. ”There’s been a long period of inflation in the movie business,” confirms Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of USA Networks. ”What’s stopping it is the blood on the floor.” Under this new bottom-line paradigm, the art of Hollywood power brokering includes

Pulling the plug on runaway flicks — early
Warner Bros. took an unprecedented step recently by balking at what the studio considered a too costly remake of The Incredible Mr. Limpet, with Jim Carrey. The sea change took even writer-director Steve Oedekerk by surprise. ”There was a time when studios would say, ‘We have a star attached to a script about trees, and we’re shooting in February,”’ says Oedekerk. ”Now they want to make movies that are cheaper.”

Playing pin the costs on the director
With the memory of James Cameron running up a Titanic, seemingly unrecoverable budget of $200 million perhaps still fresh in their minds, Fox execs reportedly asked director Michael Mann to take full responsibility for potential overages on The Flight of the Phoenix. Mann wanted a 50-50 split, and the deal fell apart.

Getting picky with perks
The use of the corporate jet is increasingly off limits to all but A-list stars (as Sean Penn discovered when he asked Fox for a free ride during a promotional tour for The Thin Red Line). Also say goodbye to the vanity production deal: Warner Bros. has ended its pacts with Tim Burton and Matthew McConaughey. ”The only actor production deals not under review are with stars like Robin Williams and Sean Connery, who get pretty much what they want anyway,” says one studio head.

And make no mistake: The fallout from these cutbacks can be felt all the way down the Hollywood food chain. Though a handful of box office titans — including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, and John Travolta — are still passing Go and collecting $20 million, character actors, whose paychecks zoomed to between $6 and $10 million during the go-go ’90s, are among those being squeezed. ”Studios that pay $20 million for a star now say, ‘We’ve got a star, so we don’t need to pay for name actors in the supporting cast,”’ says David Permut, who produced Face/Off. To keep up with the times, Nick Nolte has voluntarily downsized. Though his price jumped from $4 million on The Prince of Tides in 1991 to $7 million on 1994’s Blue Chips, he accepted $1 million for The Thin Red Line and a back-end deal to star in Affliction. For the DreamWorks sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen agreed to take $2 million and a back-end deal — rather than a $10 million fee — to keep the film’s budget under $60 million.