Are actors worth the big bucks? -- Hollywood says yes, if Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, or Wesley Snipes can fill the seats and guarantee an opening

By Gregg Kilday and Anne Thompson
April 08, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

One by one, the stars took their seats on the glittery dais. Jodie Foster. Mel Gibson. Kevin Costner. Dennis Quaid. Macaulay Culkin. Warren Beatty. Tom Cruise. Michael Douglas. And Demi Moore, cradling her five-week-old baby, Tallulah. Waves of adulation rumbled through the ballroom at Bally’s hotel as 3,300 theater owners — in Las Vegas for the ShoWest preview of Hollywood’s coming attractions — offered one ovation after another. The Warner Bros. executives presiding over the lunch never stopped beaming. And no one seemed to bat an eye at the tab for what may have been the costliest luncheon in history: at least $75 million. That’s what the studio spent within the last year on the salaries, not to mention the perks, of its constellation of A-list stars. And Warner — which last year raked in more money than any other studio — figures they’re worth every penny.

From the $10,000 per week that Charlie Chaplin earned in 1916 to the $7 million that Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’s Jim Carrey, the industry’s newest overnight star, will get for the title-tells-it-all comedy Dumb and Dumber, the money Hollywood pays its top actors has always been nearly as dazzling as the performers themselves. And just as budgets climb upward — the average studio movie now costs $30 million, up $7 million since 1989 — star salaries keep soaring into the stratosphere. Are moviemakers getting a proportionate bang for their megabuck?

”There are three reasons why some people are worth what they get paid,” explains Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock. ”One, they’re really good acting a particular role. Two, they put bodies in seats. And three, they’re willing to go out and work for a movie. Of the three, number two is most important.”

Putting bodies in seats — in moviespeak, ”opening a picture” — means it’s the star’s job to attract filmgoers on opening weekends. In one sense, a big name is an insurance policy designed to protect a movie that may turn out badly. The true measure of Tom Cruise’s stardom wasn’t Top Gun (1986) but Cocktail (1988), since only a real star could open that clunker to an $11.8 million first weekend. Similarly, Pretty Woman heralded the arrival of Julia Roberts, but Sleeping With the Enemy’s $13.8 million opening proved her genuine worth. And this winter, Wesley Snipes certified his rising star by ensuring that the otherwise forgettable Sugar Hill debuted at $5.7 million.

Over lunch at the Ivy or dinner at Mortons, insiders are merciless in assessing who does — and who doesn’t — open a picture. Did Michelle Pfeiffer help Batman Returns? The consensus: yes. Did Kim Basinger help Batman? No. Does Warren Beatty still have what it takes? ”He’s problematic,” says one studio executive. ”I’d be loathe to pay him.”

”Barbra Streisand is a big star,” chimes in another. ”All her pictures opened, even Nuts. But she doesn’t have a broad-based audience — her appeal is strictly big-city ethnic.”

But while masses of moviegoers can anoint a star, it’s the handful of bottom-line studio chiefs, buccaneering independent producers, elite superagents, and lawyers who determine what they’re actually paid. And whenever a new player joins the game, he ups the ante. In the ’80s, Menachem Golan’s Cannon Films and Mario Kassar’s Carolco Pictures bet enormous purses on international action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cannon paid Stallone $12 million to arm-wrestle in 1987’s Over the Top. In the ’90s, even more deep-pocketed companies — Andy Vajna’s Cinergi, Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, and Savoy Pictures — joined the fray. ”New management always overpays,” observes Variety editor Peter Bart. ”It’s all a function of time and place and desperation.”

”You’ve got too much money flowing into the business,” contends analyst Larry Haverty, who follows the entertainment industry for the investment firm State Street Research. For example, Savoy Pictures raised $500 million, a chunk of which goes to bid up the costs of producers, directors, stars. ”If you’re a Kevin Costner,” says Haverty, ”why would you make a picture at Savoy instead of Warner? One reason: money.”

”Prices are going up for the same reasons they’ve always gone up,” says Universal’s Pollock. ”You have a large volume of money chasing a small pool of talent.” And as studios try to increase the number of films they release each year to compete for market share, the bidding only gets fiercer. Last year even notoriously cost-conscious Disney bit the bullet and began paying midrange stars like Patrick Swayze as much as $5 million for minor movies like Father Hood.

In a seller’s market, the sellers (agents, managers, and lawyers) shrewdly exploit the situation. ”Jake Bloom drives the market,” contends one producer. ”He’s the lawyer for Sly (Stallone) and Bruce (Willis) and Jean-Claude (Van Damme). He sets the prices that Andy Vajna or Mario Kassar pay.” And, in turn, says one studio chief, ”the money paid to top international stars pulls up the prices for everybody else.”

Those first-tier actors — all of whom are men with international appeal — now routinely command eight figures, and those astounding sums meet little resistance. ”They’re worth it,” testifies one studio head. ”They virtually guarantee big foreign business and cassette sales.” That is, as long as they stay true to their images — and there are penalties for straying. Hollywood demands that Stallone stick to action and forget comedy. Costner must play the hero — when he tried on an antihero’s scowl in A Perfect World, he stiffed. Willis is worth $10 million in an action flick and $15 million if the movie has the words Die Hard in its title, but if he wants to wax dramatic, he can expect a dramatic cut in pay. Robin Williams is gold when he unleashes a comic riff, but tin when he opts for a winsome fantasy like Toys. ”People want to see actors they want to see in roles they want to see them in,” Price Entertainment VP Marvin Antonowsky says. ”It’s like series TV. They want to see Schwarzenegger every week as a superhero, not spoofing a superhero.”

For actresses, those sweepstakes-style paydays are far more elusive. There are nearly 20 male stars who routinely earn more than the two top female stars, Julia Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg. One reason is that women haven’t jumped into the bloody action-adventure pics that dominate foreign markets. ”It takes women a lot longer to prove their drawing power,” says publicist Pat Kingsley. ”The studios don’t make as many romantic comedies and love stories as they do action-adventures.” The gap, insists producer David Brown, ”is solely based on the taste of the buying public. Women want to see men, and men want to see men. It’s not in any way discriminatory.”

Really? Factor in the huge international successes of Ghost, Pretty Woman, and Sister Act, and it is harder to factor out sexism — a bias that’s even stronger when it’s applied not just to how many hits you need but to how many duds you’re allowed. ”The injustice,” says one production executive, ”is that guys like Kiefer Sutherland who don’t open movies get more money than the women who don’t.”

When female stars have hit it big, they’ve often failed to capitalize on their clout and instead poured their energies into small, low-concept films or ”quality” projects, a quixotic pursuit that’s never sidetracked Arnold or Sly. That may be changing: Sharon Stone and Demi Moore seem to have caught on to how the boys play the game. Stone is raising her international action- adventure profile by playing a mystery woman who tangles with Stallone in The Specialist, and Moore has hitched her star to that of Basic Instinct’s Michael Douglas by taking the role of his boss in the film of Michael Crichton’s sexual-harassment thriller, Disclosure. The moves look smart enough to blur the harsher reality: Stone’s checks will still amount to less than one half of her costar’s, and Moore’s $5 million asking price lags behind those of both her Indecent Proposal cohorts, Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson.

But while Hollywood happily pays off its biggest actors and grudgingly rewards some actresses, executives begin to sweat when facing the jostling crowd in the next tier. A mix of seasoned pros like Nicholson and Beatty and such erratic hitters as Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Swayze, and Quaid, the second string demands salaries of between $3 million and $10 million, depending on how long ago their last hit was. ”What do you do with Redford, Hoffman, Beatty?” asks one studio chief. ”They’re really the best, but they don’t guarantee an opening. They’re no longer movie stars in the sense that Jim Carrey’s a movie star.”

You can date the start of civilization’s decline from this very moment.

However, the shrewdest vets — wary of pricing themselves out of the business — have devised survival strategies. After Havana’s failure, for example, Redford knew he’d have trouble maintaining his $7 million fee. So in subsequent movies he agreed to exchange his usual up-front salary for a share of gross profits. After Sneakers and Indecent Proposal restored his luster, he’s back, stronger than ever, and now asking $10 million against 10 to 15 percent of the gross.

Stars who can’t claim that kind of status are in a more precarious position. Nolte and Gere might get their prices up to $7 million or $8 million for a picture or two, but if those bomb, as Blue Chips and Intersection did, then their fees slip back down. But not very far. Second-tier movies need stars too. One agent candidly admits, ”There are a lot of leading men, guys like Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Andy Garcia, Nicolas Cage, Christian Slater, and John Cusack, who get called when the studio is over a barrel.”

That’s why Hollywood is always creating new stars. ”I told my agents, ‘I don’t care how quickly they get me to the $1 million mark,”’ says 20-year-old Stephen Dorff (Backbeat) as he ponders his next move. ”That’s not what it’s all about.”

Nice, but Dorff may soon realize that when Hollywood needs new grist for its star-making machinery, $1 million is a bargain. After just two major roles, some great reviews, and an Oscar nomination, Leonardo DiCaprio, 19, joined the club with The Basketball Diaries, now filming. Buzz is building for 26-year-old Brendan Fraser (Encino Man), who will be seen this year in With Honors, Airheads, and — for $1.5 million — the baseball comedy The Scout. ”Brendan has potential,” judges Tombstone producer James Jacks. ”People pay him because they think he’s going to be a big star and they want him to be in their movie.” For Jason James Richter, 14, it took just one costarring role opposite a cooped-up killer whale in Free Willy to win him $1 million for the sequel, and a reported $1.5 million should Willy need liberating a third time.

To a working stiff, it must seem like a modern-day gold rush. But in Hollywood, it’s just the cost of doing business.

”I’ve been hearing about how the outrageous cost of talent is going to bankrupt the studios for 40 years,” chuckles veteran producer Brown.

”Everybody is overpaid in the movie business,” shrugs Jacks.

”Are stars overpaid? They’ve earned it,” says Reality Bites producer Michael Shamberg. ”They’ve all left their hometown, their safe job, chasing a dream. Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder from Austria. Luke Perry’s a nice kid from Fredericktown, Ohio. It’s capitalism at its best.” (Additional reporting by Pat H. Broeske and Patricia Sellers)