Film Studies: Lord of the inflated salary

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The Independent Culture

In 1933, the RKO studio made a movie called King Kong. I can hardly say enough good things about it, but I suspect that in the year of its 70th anniversary you don't need to be told. You have seen the film. You know the story. You may not know that the picture cost $672,000 (it was expensive, in large part because of its experiments with special effects), or that in its first run it earned rentals (the portion of the box office takings that is returned to the distributor) of about $2m. So it made a healthy profit, while securing its place as a classic.

A couple of weeks ago, Universal (recently purchased by General Electric) caused a vast stir in Hollywood by contracting with Peter Jackson to do a re-make of King Kong. And as part of this deal they are offering Jackson and his team an up-front salary of $20m plus 20 per cent of the rental returns to the studio from theatrical release. Jackson is the director of all three parts of The Lord of the Rings; as the concluding part of that trilogy opens later this year its worldwide earnings could approach $2.5bn.

That last number is enormous - it's like winning the lottery. But is the model of a lottery any way to run a business? Remember that Miramax, no fools in the picture business, passed on The Lord of the Rings when they became aware of the investment involved. That left it available for Fine Line, who have enjoyed the rewards of what has to be seen as a long-shot deal. After all, The Lord of the Rings - the books by JRR Tolkien - had been available for movie-making for decades, and no one had seen fit to take the risk. Even as offered by Peter Jackson, to be filmed in New Zealand, all at the same time, with unimaginable (and therefore unviewable) special effects, not everyone was convinced.

With reason: no one ever knows what's going to happen with a movie.

Only this year, the second part of The Matrix had numbers that fell off by 60 per cent from one week to the next. The Hulk was a major disappointment. Gigli was a disaster. The Human Stain (a project from Philip Roth, directed by Robert Benton, with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman) seemed to ooze class and promise. Until people saw it. Then it was written off before it had opened. Earlier films by Peter Jackson - The Frighteners and even the brilliant Heavenly Creatures - did not do very well.

So what can be done with another King Kong (the third) that justifies this deal? Is the story going to be different? Will the giant ape actually express his love for Anne Darrow in some normal way? Or even in abnormal ways? Just how special are the special effects going to be? Because, if Universal reckon to get a couple of young stars to go with the ape (like Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange from the 1976 remake), then how much more of the budget, and how many more points off the gross are signed away? Are we looking at a movie manageable in the "old" $100m range? Or are we closer to $200m?

Conventionally on a film of that budgetary size, you have to deliver rentals in the $500m range. But you've got to add something more onto this one in that, eventually, maybe as much as 30 per cent of the returns (from the very first dollar) are pre-assigned to Jackson and your stars. A film like that could earn twice its costs and still never get into profit.

Am I saying Jackson doesn't deserve $20m? No, deserving has nothing to do with what he has already commanded. Or with the influence this will have on other movies. Picture-making is a small club, and Peter Jackson is an outsider. More or less, it has been only in exceptional circumstances hitherto that a director has commanded $10m. Now every director is going to be looking for promotion - and every star working with those directors will expect to see a commensurate increase in their terms. So what the deal portends is a savage dose of inflation - and even less likelihood of your seeing films about ordinary people in credible situations, as opposed to a woman and a monkey in that eternal failure to communicate. And monkeys don't even go to the movies.

Universal wants attention and publicity: it is a studio seeking to refashion its image after years of insipid ownership. Peter Jackson can say that they made him an offer he couldn't refuse - though the same man once said that he just wanted to have enough to eat and make his movies. And his "people" negotiated this intimidating deal. Meanwhile the climate for grown-up pictures faces another ice age.