Gimme more, more, more, more, more
Talk at the Oscars later this month will be less about prizes and more about the end of celebrity perks. The days of the private jet and French chef for the dog may be over, says Jake Roberts
Sunday 07 March 1999
While Nineties film stars are hardly slumming it, the good old days epitomised by Taylor and co are well and truly over. Studio bosses, long in thrall to the whims of the A-list, have finally realised that, with the cost of making a movie now stratospheric compared even to 10 years ago (up 166 per cent) and perks for celebrities becoming increasingly extreme, the time has come to play hardball with the stars.
Sean Penn felt the full force of this in January, when he attempted to commandeer a private jet from 20th Century Fox. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the company, made it company policy last year not to grant any such freebies to stars, above and beyond their contracts. Penn was so furious that he was denied a mere plane that he wrote a venomous letter to Fox. "As I have two movies, two children and (as each woman is at least two people) two wives, my schedule is rather hectic," he seethed. "I therefore requested that Mr Murdoch's gigantic corporation might be so generous (with the money they've earned exploiting the pain and suffering of myself and my peers in their tabloids) as to supply me with a private just to travel to Houston." The response was a clear no. Two things were cited: first, the $40,000 cost; second, official company policy.
Penn might not like it, but the truth is that movie stars now need studios as much as the studios need movie stars. Studios are making fewer films per year and the conventional wisdom that they need megastars to "open" a picture has changed in the wake of star-heavy flops like Meet Joe Black, The Postman and The Avengers, and the huge success of low-budget, low- star films like The Wedding Singer and There's Something About Mary. What's more, teenage audiences are demanding something fresher and less cynical than overblown star vehicles. They don't care about Schwarzenegger; they want new blood. "The power is being wrested away from actors," says Chris Pickard, editor of Moving Pictures, "because there's a wave of new, fresh talent that doesn't need to be paid $15m a movie. Everyone goes on about Leonardo DiCaprio being a huge star, but remember when he made Titanic he wasn't. You could argue that that was part of his appeal to audiences."
This more adventurous attitude towards casting is a far cry from the mid-Nineties, when stars counted on huge salaries and even more obscene perks as they played on the insecurity of the studios. The full extent of the panic became clear in 1994. Two days before Ace Ventura: Pet Detective opened, its production company refused to pay the film's rubber-faced lead, Jim Carrey, $1m to star in another project, Dumb & Dumber. Two weeks later, when Ace Ventura proved to be a massive hit, Carrey had to be paid $7m to star in the same movie.
By the year-end the price competition for marquee names - Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams - had gone haywire. Gibson was paid $12m for his next Lethal Weapon sequel, Schwarzenegger $15m for True Lies, and $10m was dangled in front of both Ford and Brad Pitt to make The Devil's Own. John Travolta, who made his comeback film Pulp Fiction for $150,000, joked that his new asking price was in fact $20m and one cent so he would be paid more than Carrey.
The "extras" were even more ludicrous. For starters, there is the whole entourage schtick. Any star worth their Lo-salt can still demand a personal hairdresser, a personal trainer and the exclusive services of a dietician, a bodyguard, a driver, a wardrobe assistant and a general assistant while making a film. There is also the cost of constructing and occasionally mobilising a private gym for the likes of Bruce or Sly. But why work out when you can ride? Eddie Murphy famously racked up $5,000 a week in limo costs plus another $5,000 a week in various "living" expenses on the making of Coming To America, a movie that was shot in Murphy's home town. And while in London to collect an award for Beverly Hills Cop's video sales, he treated several of his associates to Rolex watches - a cost sweetly passed on to Paramount Pictures.
But the biggest star perk, and the biggest power trip, must be the private plane. Kevin Costner once joked that he only made films for Warner Bros because of the jet. During Mary Reilly, Julia Roberts had a private jet on standby in case she got homesick. Demi Moore, showed how she earned her nickname Gimme Moore when she once sent a plane away because it proved to be too small for all her luggage. The obliging studio simply sent her a larger one. Then there are the more unusual requests - pet detective Jim Carrey once tried to have it written into his contract that his studio would pay for the upkeep of his iguana (including providing it with a chef) while he was filming. The cost? $1,250 a week. Even Carrey couldn't get that one through.
Now the climate is different. "You have Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Emily Watson - virtual unknowns in America - up for Oscars in low-budget films," says Chris Pickard. "Gwyneth Paltrow has made virtually her entire reputation on low-budget movies. It's not about fame now, it's about knuckling down and delivering the goods - or else." For example, two years after making Pulp Fiction for peanuts (and being grateful for it), John Travolta was offered $17m - by far the biggest fee of his career - to star in a comedy, The Double, to be directed by Roman Polanski in Paris. Travolta demanded a private jet, and insisted that his studio shipped a $200,000 trailer across the Atlantic to the set ahead of filming. Then Travolta turned his attention to more creative matters, and effectively the right to "direct" the director. He tried to get Polanski replaced, agreeing to pay the director's $3.25m salary. The movie ended up being aborted.
More significantly, stars are now required to attend premieres, press junkets and trade shows all over the world - and often the number of days they must leave free to promote their films are written into their contracts. Sometimes even the number of media interviews are specified.
But the biggest change in attitude is that big stars are expected to shoulder some financial risk. These days nearly all the big pay cheques are linked to box-office performance. For example, Tom Hanks might end up making $40m out of Saving Private Ryan but he didn't receive a cent up front, having agreed to forgo his regular acting fee in return for a slice of the film's box-office haul. This means the film studios that backed the film, Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks and Paramount, could bring in the ambitious war epic for a bargain $68m. Tom Cruise recently agreed to the same terms to star in Spielberg's sci-fi Minority Report and last week Nicolas Cage struck a similar deal to star in a remake of the car-thieves yarn, Gone in 60 Seconds.
Of course, the chance to earn $20m-pounds 40m a picture can hardly be sniffed at, but the point is, nothing is guaranteed. Kevin Costner's last film, The Postman, was a turkey but for his next film, Universal Studios went along with all the usual star demands. For example, his personal trainer/nutritionist was paid $4,500 a week on location and she stayed in the Four Seasons hotel for three months. The estimated cost of the driver and trailer alone for Costner's personal hairstylist, personal wardrobe assistant and personal make-up artist was $50,000. Only there was a big catch - Universal would only agree to finance the film if Costner agreed to forgo his entire salary in exchange for a larger-than-usual percentage of the first-dollar gross. If his next film grosses more than $100m Costner will receive his customary haul, say $20m. But this is a big if: The Postman only grossed $25m worldwide.
Ironically, demands may be further chastened by the very people who helped to drive them up in the past few years. Big stars, such as Cruise, Willis and Gibson, have all started to produce their own films and when once responsible for budgets they might question whether laying on a private jet to transport yellow M&Ms to the middle of the jungle is such a smart move.
Meanwhile, last month Titanic's James Cameron, who was behind the most expensive film of all time, recently admitted that it is now possible for computers to create completely synthetic "virtual" actors. Leonardo must be quaking in his Manolo Blahniks.
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