Because I'm worth it?

While an elite group of film and TV stars, and footballers, can demand six figures sums for their performances, the people behind the scenes show little sign of catching up. The simple fact is there is no correlation between star pay and industry income
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The Independent Online

Here's a tough question: a bunch of spoiled, self-regarding actors have a stand-up fight with a grasping, greed-crazed studio, who do you root for? For most people, the contractual negotiations between the cast of Friends and Warner Brothers (part of that homey, intimate Time-Warner-EMI-AOL conglomerate) took place in a scarcely comprehensible realm of high finance. A group of thirtysomething thespians, struggling under the weight of an oppressive yoke which saw them paid a mere $100,000 (roughly £65,000) for each of the 26 episodes they record every year, decided that they were actually worth an even million, per person, per show, before settling for a mere $750,000, guaranteed for two years.

Here's a tough question: a bunch of spoiled, self-regarding actors have a stand-up fight with a grasping, greed-crazed studio, who do you root for? For most people, the contractual negotiations between the cast of Friends and Warner Brothers (part of that homey, intimate Time-Warner-EMI-AOL conglomerate) took place in a scarcely comprehensible realm of high finance. A group of thirtysomething thespians, struggling under the weight of an oppressive yoke which saw them paid a mere $100,000 (roughly £65,000) for each of the 26 episodes they record every year, decided that they were actually worth an even million, per person, per show, before settling for a mere $750,000, guaranteed for two years.

That's half a million pounds a week - more than £25 million in total - just for looking cute and sounding funny. Bear in mind, too, that the initial payment is by no means the last that the actors will receive. Friends, like MASH, Taxi or Cheers, has become a recognised classic which can be sure of a long, long life in syndication all over the world. For the show's six stars, those years, and even decades of repeats, will be a fabulous pension fund, guaranteeing them bumper pay days well into their professional dotage.

The actors - and especially their agents - would say that they deserve every penny. What, they would argue, would Friends be without the perky prettiness of Jennifer Anniston, or the goofy beefcake of Matt Le Blanc? They would agree absolutely with Tom Cruise, whose dual role as producer and star of the upcoming Mission: Impossible 2 will net him tens of millions of dollars, and who this month told Vanity Fair: "I get paid because I'm worth it and they should pay me that much."

They might also point out that they still aren't receiving as much as Jerry Seinfeld who was on $1.2 million per episode of his eponymous series and who turned down a staggering $5 million per episode to stay with the show for an extra season, rather than quitting, as he did, in 1998. NBC, the network on which Seinfeld appeared, would happily have given Castle Rock, the production company that made it, the money they needed to fund Jerry's salary for one very simple reason: the ad revenue from Seinfeld accounted for NBC's entire annual profit margin. For the last episode, they were flogging 30 second ad spots at $2 million apiece. That was a whole heap of money to watch walking out of the door.

In Jerry Seinfeld's case, you could just about argue that there was a moral, as well as a purely financial, case for providing him with an annual income estimated to have reached $66 million by 1997 (an income, incidentally, which allowed him to buy 60 cars, including 25 Porsches, which he housed in twin hangars at Santa Monica airport). Seinfeld conceived and co-wrote his show with his partner Larry David. Not only was it his idea, it essentially was him.

And Tom Cruise is probably right to say that he earns his rich, rich corn. In the 12 years between his starring role in Top Gun as Lt. Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell in 1986 and the title role of Jerry Maguire in 1998, he made 11 movies. Between them they grossed $1.4 billion at the US box-office alone. Factor in overseas ticket sales, plus video revenues and Cruise - whose films are always built around him without any pretence of ensemble acting - must have generated well over $5 billion for the studios who hired him.

No matter how much you pay Tom Cruise, it is virtually impossible to lose money. If only the same were true of everyone else who follows in his wake. In the endless game of one-upmanship that is the Hollywood rat race, the breaching of a major salary barrier by any one star ups the ante for everyone else. If Arnie's getting $15 million, Mel has to get $20 million. And if Mel Gibson's getting $20 million, then not only does John Travolta have to get that too, but Nicholas Cage has to look very seriously at something in the high teens. Which means that everyone else, all the way down the line, starts upping their own personal ante.

The result, in Hollywood, is that star salaries are reckoned to have doubled in the past three years - a rate of growth that is exceeded only by the pay given to Premiership footballers, which has risen by 180 per cent over the same period. And for every Tom Cruise or David Beckham - whose value to Manchester United as a vehicle for selling merchandise far outweighs any salary the club is ever likely to pay him - there are dozens of mediocre actors, or lowly squad players, who cannot possibly justify the money they are receiving.

You can see the same phenomenon in virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry and media. Here in Britain, TV channels have signed up an elite group of presenters and actors, paying six or seven figures a year to performers whose subsequent performances in the ratings occasionally justify their salaries. David Jason is as certain a hit with UK telly-watchers as Tom Cruise is with the world's moviegoers. But far more often - Vanessa Feltz, Noel Edmonds, Anthea Turner come to mind - they do not.

Newspapers, too, compete for the by-lines of supposed star columnists. Yet it is hard to think of a single writer whose presence drives a paper's sales upwards, or whose absence sends readers scurrying off to other titles.

The simple fact is that there is no correlation between star pay and industry income. In 1998 - the latest year for which figures are available - global moviegoers spent $5.7 billion (about £3.8 billion) on cinema admissions. That figure was up on the previous year, but the graph in ticket-prices isn't rising at anything remotely approaching the rate at which salaries are increasing. In British TV ratings for mainstream channels, increasingly challenged by satellite, cable and the internet, are decreasing, as are sales of Fleet Street papers.

So where are publishers, studios and TV channels finding the money to pay their stars? Answer: from everyone else. Rates of pay for the vast majority of British journalists have not risen at anything like the rate of the money given to Fleet Street's supposed stars. For most freelance writers, word rates have diminished in both real and actual terms over the past decade. The same applies in TV to directors and all but a few top script-writers. I'd bet that your average jobbing thespian would have a similar story.

Which leads us back to Friends. Its stars are a bright, attractive bunch by any standards. But the genius of the programme lies not with the actors, but with the writers whose work has been sustained over the years at an astonishingly high standard. And none of the leads are stars once they leave the cosy confines of Central Perk. Lisa Kudrow is developing an honourable career as a movie character actress, and Courteney Cox has been part of the all-conquering Scream team. But Kudrow can't begin to open a movie on her own account, and the three Scream flicks are - like Friends - ensemble pieces based on a single, brilliant premise. They are not vehicles for stars.

In truth, very few movies are. Films, like newspapers, like TV shows, like football clubs, are genuinely collaborative endeavours which depend on the efforts of huge numbers of people, seen and unseen. When actors tearfully pick up their Oscars or BAFTAs and blurt out that none of this would have been possible without a long list of people, they're telling the absolute truth. But you only have to look at their pay claims to know that they don't really mean a word of it. Stars just want to grab as much as they can while the going is good. And they don't give a damn who has to suffer in order to pay for their outrageous good fortune.

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