Media: Directors tell why Hollywood could end up a lost world

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Overpaid actors, interfering studios and the threat of Rupert Murdoch. Some of Hollywood's best-known directors have spilled the beans. David Lister, arts news editor, reports on friction in Tinseltown

They are among the biggest and richest characters in the world of movies. But they have revealed themselves to be frustrated, fractious and despondent about the future of the film industry, and fed up with the funny money being paid to Hollywood's biggest stars.

They also admit that it is nigh impossible to make an artistically satisfying mid-budget film which does not have a big star or a merchandising spin off.

Hollywood directors including Martin Scorcese, Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, Barry Levinson and Spike Lee hit out in a round-table discussion for this month's edition of Premiere magazine.

The comments are unusually frank and spare neither employers nor employees. Nora Ephron, director of Sleepless In Seattle, accused the studios of "cheating everybody with accounting." She says: "The accounting on Sleepless is breathtaking. It grossed $220m worldwide, cost $21m, and is currently showing $3m in profits. Total. We've had to audit them twice, and every check I have gotten from them cost me an astronomical amount in legal fees."

Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man and Sleepers) talks of the dominance of marketing, saying: "The 30-second television spot is probably the most dominant element in the business today. If you were making On The Waterfront now, the executives would be thinking, My God, how in the world are we going to produce a 30-second spot? Does it have any kind of merchandising potential? Can it be a video game? Can it be a computer kind of game? As opposed to being a movie. So what you're getting now are more simplistic films that you can sell more easily."

Robert Altman (The Player, Pret A Porter) is enthusiastically supportive and adds a swipe at Steven Spielberg. "This Lost World, I haven't seen it, but I haven't met anybody, even children, who doesn't think it's just dreadful. But everybody wants to go see the dinosaurs. So it's amusement park time. Listen, times are bad and getting worse. And I don't think it's going to get any better. You know, there's not going to be any renaissance."

And Malcolm X director Spike Lee demonstrates either inside knowledge or an advanced degree of paranoia when he says: "What is an independent film nowadays? With Miramax owned by Disney and now October bought by Universal, all the little people are being gobbled up ... Eventually Mr Murdoch [Rupert Murdoch, head of 20th Century Fox and News International] he's going to own everything in the whole world - next year! Not just the next three years, but next year."

However, the greatest breaking of Hollywood ranks comes in the directors' attack on the fat salaries being paid to the acting stars.

The table of actors' fees per picture in Premiere shows that Tom Cruise can now command $20m per picture (compared to just $2m 10 years ago). Harrison Ford and John Travolta are also in the $20m league, Demi Moore $14m, Julia Roberts and Sigourney Weaver $13m, Eddie Murphy $16m, Meryl Streep $8m and Goldie Hawn $5m.

Asked why costs have escalated so rapidly and so wildly, Oliver Stone responds: "Because of a lot of second-tier actors who are asking $12m for a picture. It's absurd. I think actors are mostly pigging out, frankly. Over the years I've been offered the big movies, but I never took the money like that. Scorcese adds: "The problem is if you're going to pay an actor $20m, they're going to do something that's tried-and- rue, very conservative material He has to go through the ABCD route of the plot,a nd it's got to be action-adventure. And he's got to be able to come out okay at the end. And the bad guy's got to get killed in special ways. Nobody's going to take any chances. You've just got to top the one that came out six months before."