Movie star paychecks -- The lowdown on how Hollywood determines the salaries of actors like Bill Murray, Whoopi Goldberg, and the rest

We know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is worth his weight in gold because overseas audiences — in addition to those at home — love his movies. And it even makes sense that the likes of Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Tom Cruise also command salaries in the $10 million to $12 million range. But why do fading stars like Eddie Murphy continue to earn stellar salaries? Why have Kurt Russell, Richard Gere, and Nick Nolte suddenly gained entrance into the $7 million club? Even Macaulay Culkin is getting $8 million for Getting Even With Dad. Just how do studios decide what to pay a star?

The key to understanding Hollywood salaries is knowing which stars can get people into theaters during a film’s opening weekend: The bigger the opening weekend, the better the odds of a hit. To test that theory, we took a recent Variety chart that totaled up the average opening weekends for major stars over the past seven years, then compared those numbers with an Entertainment Weekly update of star salaries. Here’s what the numbers say:

·It pays to be macho in France: Foreign audiences still love action heros in the Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone mold. ”Harrison Ford in an action part is worth $9 million,” says producer James Jacks (the upcoming Hard Target), ”because he gives you an opening and foreign appeal, two things that matter.”

·Comedy doesn’t travel: What’s funny in Brooklyn may not play in Belize, which is why Bill Murray and Michael J. Fox rarely earn more than $5 million to $6 million and Michael Keaton only makes his top rate on Batman movies.

·Women make less than men, unless they’re needed for the sequel: Sigourney Weaver commanded her top price of $5 million only because Twentieth Century Fox couldn’t do the Alien follow-ups without her. Same reason penny-pinching Disney had to cough up $7 million for Whoopi Goldberg to star in Sister Act 2, due out in December.

·Family movies=kid stars: With the studios eager to make PG movies, Culkin can command more money than most grown-ups.

·Momentum counts: One giant hit will boost a star’s acting price for years, subsequent flops notwithstanding. ”That’s why people past their peak are overvalued,” says screenwriter Michael Mahern (Mobsters).

·New management drives prices up: Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing is paying Nolte and Gere $7 million each for the thriller Blue Chip and the drama Intersection, respectively, because she needs to get movies off the ground. A new French company, Hexagon Films, is doling out $7 million to Russell (who normally earns $3 million) for the sci-fi adventure Stargate. He may never see that salary again — unless the movie is a big hit. ”It’s what the market will bear,” says one talent agent. ”It’s all a function of time, place, and desperation.”

The Take of the Town
Here’s Variety‘s seven-year opening-weekend averages versus what the stars are getting. However, some movies do open wider than others, a factor not reflected in this chart.

Eddie Murphy
Average opening weekend: 16.8 million Salary: 12 million
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Average opening weekend: 15.4 million Salary: 15 million
Sigourney Weaver
Average opening weekend: 15.2 million Salary: 3-5 million
Michael Keaton
Average opening weekend: 14.2 million Salary: 5 million
Bill Murray
Average opening weekend: 12.5 million Salary: 6 million
Mel Gibson
Average opening weekend: 12.4 million Salary: 10 million
Harrison Ford
Average opening weekend: 12 million Salary: 9 million
Tom Cruise
Average opening weekend: 11.4 million Salary: 12 million
Julia Roberts
Average opening weekend: 11.2 million Salary: 5-6 million
Michael J. Fox
Average opening weekend: 10.8 million Salary: 5-6 million
Kevin Costner
Average opening weekend: 9.7 million Salary: 12 million
Sylvester Stallone
Average opening weekend: 8.7 million Salary: 6-9 million
Richard Gere
Average opening weekend: 6.6 million Salary: 5-7 million
Nick Nolte
Average opening weekend: 6.2 million Salary: 5-7 million
Whoopi Goldberg
Average opening weekend: 5.8 million Salary: 2-7 million