Celebrities and Their Salaries
The President of the United States makes $200 000 a year. A Supreme Court justice gets $170 000. The average annual American household income is $34 076. And Steven Segal? He makes $10 million per picture. We want celebrities to be like us, and then we don't. We want them to inhabit a world of glamour, but we don't want them to be stuck up. We want to gaze at their big faces on the screen, yet it's our own narcissism we are feeding. Yet one thing's for sure - we don't like to hear about them making $10 million for lousy movies. For the most part, celebrities are not worth their enormous paychecks. Not only is it a ridiculous price to pay someone to stand in front of a camera but it has negative effects on the rest of the entertainment business. Due to the salary increases, production prices are rising, quality is lowering, and it is becoming increasingly harder for a television show or movie to become a hit.
Making money at the movies is problematic, though studios once thought star power was a surefire way to receive boffo box-office returns. These days star power is limited, and often meaningless, unless the film strikes a nerve with audiences. "There's no justification for any of these high salaries unless you get the actor in a film with a terrific idea," said an anonymous studio executive. "Look at Mr. Holland's Opus. The film was cheap. Richard Dreyfuss is no longer a star. But the idea counted." Yet studios continue to shell out for these big names, exploding the current price tag for the average studio film, including marketing and distribution to $60 million. The same is true for television programs such as Mad About You and The Simpsons. Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser, the stars of Mad About You demanded $1 million per episode this season (that's a $750 000 raise for both) and got it, raising their license fees 100 percent, to about $3 million. However, Mad About You is no ER, Seinfeld, or even Friends, the sitcom has never been a big hit and now in its sixth year its ratings are on the decline. There is also the case of the voices from The Simpsons demanding $150 000 per episode for only a two- day-a-week job. Of course, not everyone is being greedy. A few pricey actors (Stallone in Copland, Hanks in Forrest Gump) have been attempting to keep budgets low by forgoing huge upfront payments in exchange for a piece of the profits. Realize though that it is not only just a handful of actors who are receiving these inflated paychecks. As A-list actors salaries raise, in turn th pay scale for second-tier stars do too. Suddenly, a sidekick like Tom Arnold is making $1.5 million a movie. Though not everyone in Hollywood's salary has gone up. "The middle- class working professional actor in this industry is getting squeezed," says the Screen Actors Guild's president, Richard Masur. "The top levels are sucking all the money up, and everybody else is jammed in at the bottom. If it continues, it will destroy the working heart of the business." It may be taking the heart out of the business but it is also affecting the quality of the movies being made. Movies used to be made when the material was ready to be produced. Today the studios are greenlighting a movie as soon as they can entice a marquee actor and a good quality director. That is all the validation a studio needs, whether or not the movie is ready to be made. Though when a good script does come around studios are left with fewer resources to finance mid-range movies with adult themes, clever writing and realistic romance. It is no surprise that at last years Oscars, major Hollywood movies and stars were virtually shut out (Jerry Maguire was the only studio film nominated for best picture amid a slate of independently produced critical favorites - The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets & Lies and Shine). There is also another problem that is not exactly a new but has gotten worse in recent years, stars rewriting their lines. "When stars start pulling in these incredible $20 million salaries, it gave them a sense of entitlement," observed Hollywood writer Budd Schilberg. "They think they can do anything now-act, write, change the dialogue, whatever." Needless to say, a lot of movie stars are not the greatest writers in the world-or even very good readers-and the results of their meddling are seldom attractive. Take for example, the movie update of the classic novel Great Expectations, actor-turned-writer Ethan Hawke took is upon to write his own new dialogue and the turnout from that project? Let's just say that it won't be winning any Academy Awards this year or ever. Featuring A-list actors in television shows and movies is the studios' idea of an insurance policy, guaranteeing boffo box office and Nielsen ratings. There is a flaw to this logic though, big stars bomb all the time. Recently, the former Magnum P.I., Tom Selleck was paid $150 000 to star in The Closer because he was a familiar TV face. The show was cancelled this week due to low ratings. And Bette Midler who has no TV-series experience is said to want double that. "Star vehicles have no higher success rate than other shows," says Rich Frank, head of production company C3. "In a world of clutter, the nets think anyone recognizable will bring viewers." This is the same in the world of Sylvester Stallone and Demi Moore, both have the top salaries in their fields and neither have had a hit in at least five years. Yet they continue to receive the big bucks due to the studios vain hope that the name will draw people to buy tickets and as it stands now, only 30 percent of Hollywood movies ever make money.
Some insiders insist that the status quo simply cannot continue. Sooner or later, they predict, a salary crash is inevitable. "They're going to hit the wall," says producer Albert Ruddy. "It's got to happen in the near future. It gets to be impractical at a certain point." Until then, studios will continue to shell out the big bucks to stars they see as insurance policies that guarantee box office draw and high Nielsen ratings. Comedian Sandra Bernhard summarizes our feelings best when she said, "It's out of control, inflated, bloated, and grotesque but I wouldn't mind making a million for doing a movie myself."
Film Review and Analysis essays:
... the current price tag for the average studio film, including marketing and distribution to $60 million. The same is true for television programs such as Mad About You and The Simpsons. Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser, the stars of ...