Congratulations on your Oscar (but don't expect the money to flood in)

The days when the film industry put millions into the pockets of its biggest stars – no questions asked – are over, reports Guy Adams

Saturday 06 March 2010 01:00

At the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, an entire street is now covered in red carpet and life-sized gold statues, and the Oscars' hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, are rehearsing an awards show that could well be dominated by the most lucrative film ever made.

Stadium-style seating now surrounds an extravagant walkway up which 3,300 of the world's richest and most famous people will access an event which could have sold out many times over, despite tickets which, at face value, range from $1,200 to $1,500 [£800-£1,000].

The Oscars' party circuit – scaled back in 2009 to the extent that the 81st Academy Awards were dubbed the "Austerity Oscars" – is back in full swing. At least 50 celebrity events are scheduled this weekend, and Hollywood's hot new venue is an outpost of the boom-time watering hole, Soho House.

In homage to the fact that 2009 saw cinema box-office receipts break all previous records, reaching $10.5bn (£7bn), the film industry's fattest cats are rediscovering conspicuous consumption. Yesterday's edition of Variety carried some 25 pages of advertisements for luxury goods and property. You could be forgiven, in other words, for wondering what became of the recession.

Yet for all their extravagant frocks and jewellery, many of the stars who will toddle up that red carpet tomorrow afternoon have a guilty secret: they are missing out on their traditional share of the industry's spoils.

A-list actors, who in years gone by could expect to bank anything from $20-$30m [£13.3-£20m] a film, are still waiting for salaries to return to anything like pre-slump levels. Fewer studio movies are being made, and a troubled independent film sector is so far unable to pick up the slack.

"The balance has shifted from the historic position, where artists had far more power, to one where it's in the hands of the studios," says Jeremy Barber, a partner at United Talent Agency, one of the industry's most powerful firms. "There are still people out there who can get $20-$30m, but only if a studio feels it's a film they have to make, and a talent who is not replaceable. And the number of films that meet that criteria has diminished." Take, for example, the ten titles shortlisted for 2010's Best Picture Oscar. All of them feature lead actors who, by the admittedly obscene standards of their profession, received relatively modest up-front salaries.

Sandra Bullock, the leading contender for Best Actress, reportedly halved her usual $10m asking price to star in The Blind Side. George Clooney was paid around $2m, as opposed to the $20m he has earned in the past, to star in Up In The Air. Brad Pitt received just $10m for Inglourious Basterds.

Contenders like The Hurt Locker, An Education, and District Nine were made on small budgets. Even the shortlist's major "tent-pole," Avatar – which has generated $2.5bn at the box office – saw James Cameron invest his $300m budget in special effects. The film's stars, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, banked hundreds of thousands, rather than millions of dollars.

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The era of actors getting vast up-front payments for films that may or may not make a profit is now over, perhaps for good. Instead, studios are restructuring deals to reduce levels of financial risk.

Many major stars are now getting "CB zero" or "cash-break zero" deals. That translates to relatively-small up-front payments, plus a share in the profits only after the studio has recouped its initial investment.

Sometimes, that works to an actor's advantage. Bullock and Clooney, whose nominated films made $250m and $150m respectively, have made small fortunes from their cut of profits. Other times, however, it doesn't: The Hurt Locker returned around only $12m at the box office, which represents bad news for its star, Jeremy Renner, who is up for Best Actor.

Tight market conditions have also diminished the impact of an Oscar statuette to an actor's going rate. "What matters in this town is box office, not awards," adds Mr Barber. "Sandra Bullock will have huge power on Monday morning, whether she wins or not, because she has just been in two hit movies."

Against this backdrop, some major stars risk selling out: Morgan Freeman may be nominated for Best Actor for Invictus, but of late, America has seen him in a ubiquitous series of Visa advertisements that aired during the Winter Olympics.

Other film actors are taking the once unheard of, but now relatively commonplace, decision to take a break from movies to appear in television dramas. In years gone by, TV was a medium that highbrow actors abandoned the moment they became film stars. Nowadays, that artistic snobbery has more or less vanished.

Dustin Hoffman signed up to this trend on Tuesday, committing to his first extended TV stint since the 1960s alongside Nick Nolte in the Michael Mann horse-racing drama Luck, which will air on HBO. He will join an array of top talent now earning a crust (and plaudits) on the small screen, including Glenn Close, who stars in Damages, Chloe Sevigny in Big Love, and Charlie Sheen, who before his recent personal troubles earned one of the television industry's biggest salaries for Two and a Half Men.

John Lithgow was successfully tempted to star in the last series of Dexter, while the late Patrick Swayze spent the final months of his life making last year's cop drama, The Beast. Dennis Hopper's career swan song, meanwhile, is likely to be the cable series Crash.

"The reason you're seeing these people on television is that first and foremost, it's a pay cheque," says Mychal Wilson, an entertainment industry lawyer who runs MindFusionLaw, producer, and film financier. "While there is a lot of instability in the film marketplace, TV remains a stable stream of revenue."

The stars and their management, of course, maintain that any move into TV is as much about artistic endeavour as it is about hard cash. Bob Gersh, co-president of the Gersh Agency, which represents the likes of David Schwimmer and Twilight star Kristen Stewart, says that a lot of the "most interesting and challenging material out there" is being made for the small screen. "People are getting much acclaim for TV roles. They find it an interesting challenge, and also different. And of course, in TV you can still get a nice wage up front." Gersh regards helping clients "cross over" from film into TV and theatre, and back again, as one of his most important duties.

Marketing men also now regard TV as a better way to maintain a fashionable fan base than film, particularly among younger people.

"A TV network can come up with a project far closer to a movie star's interests, creatively, and still find an audience that will allow it to make a profit," says Darren Campo, a TV executive and author of Alex Detail's Revolution. "These days, that's a win-win."

Just don't go telling it to the film purists at tomorrow night's annual celebration of Hollywood.

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