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The Six-Million Dollar Men

Pretend you are a high powered Hollywood producer.  The year is 1992 – a time when movie stars mattered.  If you wanted to open a hit movie, you needed an A-list leading man.  In order to attract top-tier talent, deals were being struck that included ever-increasing pay days for a select group of movie stars.  In the July 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, they looked at who was earning six million dollars or more per picture and asked, are they worth it?  Some of these guys may have been.  Some, in retrospect, definitely weren’t .  With the benefit of a quarter century of hindsight, let’s sort out who belongs in which group.

Each of the movie stars named here earns at least $6 million every time he (that’s right he) makes a picture. Considering that almost every one of these stars has one or more resounding bombs to his name, it makes perfect sense to ask–and we are not the first to do so–are these guys worth it?

There are two easy answers to that question. The first is: No, of course not, no one is, especially because nobody in the entertainment industry knows which movies will succeed and which will fail, regardless of who’s in them. (Everyone modestly admits this in public while secretly believing the opposite in front of their own mirrors.) The second answer is: Yes, absolutely — anyone whose agent is able to cut a $6 million-plus deal is, by definition, worth it. (There are no values on earth as relative as the values in Hollywood.) Now for the more difficult answers to the question of who among a bunch of good-looking and not-so-good-looking, talented and not-so-talented, young and not-so-young guys is worth $6 million-plus per picture. For the soberest possible perspective, suppose it’s your $6 million-plus. Here are some helpful hints for figuring out whom you should shell out for, and whom you should leave to the next Carolco.

WARREN BEATTY

It’s just one of Hollywood’s little ironies that a star who built a reputation on being publicity-shy guarantees publicity for any film he appears in. Truth is, whether granting interviews or not granting interviews, Warren Beatty works the PR machinery like no one else. (Of course, not everyone wants to be bothered with the time-consuming fuss of having scandal-sheet romances with the co-stars of their current films, let alone marrying one of them.) The staggering amount of publicity that Beatty generated for his last three films alone (Ishtar, Dick Tracy, Bugsy) raises, however, the inevitable question of whether publicity sells movie tickets. Tracy, for which Beatty got $9 million, was passed off as a modest success (at least, till the Katzenberg memo suggested otherwise), but Ishtar was a notorious disaster and Bugsy was a box-office disappointment. Put this all together with Beatty’s reputation for perfectionism and procrastination, and one comes to the conclusion that no, he’s not worth the money he gets paid. Given his strong performance in Bugsy, there’s always the chance he’ll bring home the bacon big-time again– but it’s becoming more of a long shot with every passing film and year. I want to see his next movie, I just don’t want to bankroll it.

STEVEN SEAGAL

Okay, okay, so Mike Ovitz created this guy one night during one of L.A.’s rare electrical storms. All movie stars have weird seams beneath their makeup. Fact is, if I had to put my money on any movie star, it would be on this totem pole of an actor. That’s because no matter how much Seagal himself gets paid for gems like Hard to Kill, Marked for Death and Out for Justice (and that’s up to $10 million, depending on what kind of percentage he’s taking with his salary), the fact is, he’s the only item in these films that costs over $10. And these dreadful pictures do make a bundle. They perform respectably well at home, incredibly well in all those other countries we’re supposed to believe are culturally superior to ours, and do great on cable and video. Whatever you want, Steve babe. Just don’t act.

BILL MURRAY

A classic case, alas, of the silly comic who damages his own career whenever his serious side arises. No, I’m not beating that dead horse The Razor’s Edge, I’m talking about Scrooged, for which he was paid $8 million. Murray’s insistence on wearing his sentimentality on his sleeve ruined the finale and single-handedly killed off that film’s considerable chances for good word-of-mouth. But is Murray worth what he gets even when cast to zany perfection, as he was playing the loveable pathetic creature in last year’s What About Bob? No. His inflated salary was a major factor in keeping that modest little flick from becoming the big profit-turner it ought to have been (it only brought in $64 million). Murray would be better off returning to the kind of deal he struck for Ghostbusters II: a low wage up-front, then–get this–15 percent of every dollar of revenue. (Even though it failed in the U.S. to be the $200 million hit the studio hoped for, at $112 million it still made money for Murray.) The problem is, even this strategy doesn’t always work: Murray cut a similar deal to make his directorial debut, Quick Change (it had the insurance of also starring him), but that $18 million comedy only brought in a scant $15 million in the U.S., raising the question of whether he can “open” a film at all anymore.

MEL GIBSON

You can’t really argue with Mel Gibson’s career since he’s making a bundle and you’re not. But it’s a pity his success with the Lethal Weapon movies (the second made over twice what the first did), following on the success of his Mad Max series, has created a schizoid situation in which we get to see him either as the best-looking guy who ever did Three Stooges shtick or as Hamlet (easy to understand why he needed to do it, and he had his moments, but come on). Not only is it a waste, but it makes him very hard to price when he’s not sharing the screen with Danny Glover. Since Lethal Weapon 2, Gibson’s reportedly been getting as much as $10 million a picture, plus a percentage, up from $4 million after the first Lethal Weapon. Fine, he is worth it for those movies, and an actor as good as Gibson should be paid a lot for making mindless stuff like this, since he himself is paying a price for not building a broader career like Costner’s or even Ford’s. The question is, what should he be paid when he’s not in Lethal Weapon? The answer, if you look at the other movies on his resume, seems to be: not much. Bird on a Wire was just another Lethal Weapon with a much lower I.Q. (which hardly seems possible), so its $70 million take doesn’t tell us much. Tequila Sunrise should have done better than $41 million if Mel is to be worth $10 million in a smart, serious film. Air America, at $31 million, is a warning flag that Mel can’t save a movie the way a high-paid star must. Both Hollywood and Mel would be better off if Mel accepted $5 million or $6 million and a percentage for strong, adult dramatic material, and weaned himself away from the steady action diet. Since he doesn’t practice birth control, a Lethal Weapon here or there is probably necessary to keep him in Pampers. Fine. But where are the pictures that will set him up as the next Sean Connery as he ages? Perhaps the upcoming The Rest of Daniel is a step in the right direction.

EDDIE MURPHY

It really is tough being one of the biggest box-office draws in movie history, and not just because few have ever managed to stay up there for long. The box-office bust of the Murphy-directed The Sting knockoff Harlem Nights, followed by the surprisingly so-so showing for Walter Hill’s Another 48 HRS., put the comic into such an extended funk it looked like he might never film again– while, all around him, a new generation of black filmmakers and comics were coming up fast and garnering the media attention that was once exclusively his. As Murphy returns to movies this year, the question becomes: Is he still worth the money he commands–$12 million plus a percentage? If you’ve ever had to cater to his outsized, impossible-to-please ego, the insider’s word is a definite no on anything that doesn’t soar well over $100 million. (Yes, certain stars can tax studios in ways that rival the dollar drain.) If you’ve got Murphy in tow for one of his “tent-pole” movies–say, Beverly Hills Cop III –the answer is a guarded yes (guarded because “tent-pole” Another 48 HRS. pulled in only $81 million). And if you have him in this summer’s Boomerang? You’d better be cash-rich and a gamblin’ man.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS

There was only one reason to pay Michael Douglas $14 million for Basic Instinct. He wouldn’t do it for any less, and a lot of other big names reportedly wouldn’t do it for anything. Even Michael Douglas, who is, after all, a very sharp producer, knows Michael Douglas is not worth this kind of money. When you pay a star ridiculous sums you expect him to rise above rank material when necessary and maximize minimal box office; Douglas chooses his material with savvy (if not taste), but never rises above it, as the unappealing Black Rain and megaton Shining Through demonstrate. Douglas’s successful on-screen persona is a basically okay guy undermined by foibles, edges and meanness that audiences gleefully and/or ruefully identify with. And when he plays up his vices–greed in Wall Street and The War of the Roses, lust in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct –he’s very good. But this is not the stuff of $14 million salaries, or for that matter, $7 million salaries. As good as Douglas is, there’s hardly a film you can point to where one or another big star wouldn’t be just as good or better in the same part. He deserves to be in the $4 million to $6 million range with a nice percentage as a reward for choosing the right roles for himself.

HARRISON FORD

Frankly, if Paramount’s new capo Brandon Tartikoff is willing to give Indy $9 million for Patriot Games and, presumably, a similar amount for the next two Tom Clancy adaptations, so am I. Tartikoff may have lamentable notions of what constitutes big-screen entertainment (All I Want For Christmas, Wayne’s World), but he falls on the commendable Scrooge side of current studio strategies. He’s chosen to stiff lesser stars in lesser films that may or may not turn out to be Paramount’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle on the hunch that Harrison Ford will guarantee him a decent opening in the U.S., an overseas audience and rich cable and video proceeds, at the very least. Ford got bankable in the non-thinking-person’s action picture series, and has since had various successes, failures and stand-offs in thinking-person’s dramas, so he can be expected to do well enough in a supposed thinking-person’s action picture. A guy who got even the unimpressive $43 million worth of seat-warmers to pay for a movie as plainly awful, if not downright demented, as Regarding Henry –and it was Harrison, not you, Mr. Nichols, who pulled the suckers in–is worth overpaying when the picture is actually of theoretical entertainment value.

TOM CRUISE

If you’re going to pay anybody too much to star in the movie you’re spending too much to make, pay Tom Cruise. He’s the only bona fide movie star of his generation. Cruise has massive appeal that, while it can only do so much damage control on a movie as badly conceived and arrogantly out-of-control as Days of Thunder, can bring in huge profits for something like the idiotic but precisely targeted Cocktail. Who but Tom could have lured $70 million worth of dupes to sit through the muddled histrionics of Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July? And how much of the astonishing $173 million Rain Man took in do you think Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman drew? With Cruise getting a shocking $12 million-plus each for Far and Away and the upcoming courtroom drama A Few Good Men, neither one had better fail, and at least one had better go through the roof, or Tom will drop a few mil on his W-2. The new pseudo-prudent Hollywood can only justify so many movies a year that risk the kind of budget that any film paying its star $12 million does. Nothing is that sure a thing, as the former Paramount exec who greenlighted Days of Thunder, Frank Mancuso, can tell you. For the time being, though, Cruise remains one of the few stars who can provoke a studio to go nuts in this way. (Then again, if I were paying Cruise $12 mil for a courtroom drama, I’d rather not be paying Jack Nicholson $8 mil on top of it, not to mention the sums Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland and director Rob Reiner must be commanding.)

CHEVY CHASE

His rich Warner Bros, deal–$24 million for four films– appears to be money well spent, for there’s been a built-in market, worldwide, for physical humor since the beginning of films (none of those pesky problems translating verbal gags). Plus, because Chase, like Steven Seagal, is the only costly element in his films, the budgets never get out of hand. Chase is about as certain a thing as you can find in contemporary Hollywood when he is doing the slapstick-styled comedy that he’s now grown understandably weary of. For those Vacation films, Caddyshack movies and Fletch flicks, he’s worth his $6 million. (And remember, even beyond the initial box-office take, this silly stuff has a boffo shelf life at the video store.) Chase so desires to escape pratfalls and display his chops with other kinds of humor–as he did in the less successful Funny Farm and Memoirs of an Invisible Man –that it’s not really so surprising he decided to try his hand at hosting a TV talk show in the fall of ’93. Regardless of what happens there, he’ll still be able to command $6 million for movies he doesn’t want to make.

SEAN CONNERY

The skinniest flints in the business (Disney, or rather, Hollywood Pictures) went against their principles to give Sean Connery $10 million for Medicine Man last year and got exactly what they deserved–his worst performance in years. But, given a leading lady with the charisma of a car alarm you can’t shut off, a director who shot the jungle location as if it were a parking lot, and a shockingly dumb script, Connery was still by far the best thing in the movie–without bothering to act. And he was still the reason Disney will end up making back its money on this gangrenous turkey–he proved an expensive but effective hedge against box-office oblivion. This is better than a stick in the eye, but when paying $10 million to a star, you’re looking to them to get you into the $100 million club, not merely to break even. Since gathering cachet with his Oscar for The Untouchables, Connery has been an opening draw in the U.S., even in as powerful a soporific as The Russia House, and he’s boffo overseas and on video, but his $10 million in compensation for Medicine Man reflected a hysterical pay raise after the blockbuster success of The Hunt for Red October (for which he was paid $4 million). A pay cut would seem to be in order. Connery is still worth $6 million, and in pinpoint casting, which the upcoming Rising Sun appears to be, he’s worth more. (Then again, what Michael Crichton novel has ever been the basis for an authentic box-office blockbuster?)

JACK NICHOLSON

Ask yourself, is he worth the $1 million-a-day salary he reportedly pulled in for A Few Good Men? Well, if anyone is, it’s Nicholson. Nicholson is without a doubt the best-liked star of his time. Trouble is, his presence in a film is no guarantee that it will “open,” as the corpses of The Two Jakes and Ironweed, among others, attest. Even the perceived hit The Witches of Eastwick was hardly a classic blockbuster at $64 million domestic. In other words, the phenomenon of Batman –which indeed owes much of its success to Nicholson–was a one-time thing. If, for some of us, there is no question that Nicholson’s not the actor he once was, it doesn’t matter–there’s no fighting the fact that he is Peck’s Bad Boy incarnate, and he’s highly paid for that very reason. So, if you’re sure you’ve got the next Batman, go ahead and pay Jack. But if you’re looking for the old Nicholson (and wouldn’t it be nice to have him back?), you’ll lose your shirt if you pay the new prices. Pay Jack what he wants only if you want him to overact.

SYLVESTER STALLONE

Though it seems his days as a sure thing are over here in the U.S.–even those “can’t miss” Rocky and Rambo flicks don’t pull ’em in like they used to–when Sly’s cast correctly (i.e., with his hands in boxing gloves or on a gun) he still packs a wallop everywhere else, which is why he reportedly commanded $15 million upfront–and another $10 million on the back end–for Rocky V. Stallone’s recent “comic” turns (Oscar, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) tried, and dismally failed, to put a happy face on the sheer desperation of his struggle to stay on top. If this were vaudeville, Sly would have gotten the hook, never to be seen again after these two grievous embarrassments. But this is Hollywood, so instead he’s been scrambling to go back to the action pictures that the comedies were meant to be a way out of. For his attempt to climb back up the mountain with Cliffhanger, he’s reportedly pulled in a cool $12 million (double his up-front salary for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). It might just be the last time he sees anything like two digits before the zeros on his paycheck, since the aptly titled Cliffhanger is being made by the financially strapped Carolco and may therefore have a rough road to the kind of costly launch that would set Stallone up for a comeback, if any such resurrection is possible anyway. But then, who knows? Carolco’s trying to come up with funds for another Rambo flick, and if, somehow, they do, look for Sly to ask for the moon–and get it.

KEVIN COSTNER

It may sound ridiculous to say that a man who got $7 million up-front for a film appears to be the model of reasonableness in contemporary Hollywood, but Kevin Costner looks both reasonable and savvy for the salary-plus-percentage deal he took on JFK. Having picked up $8 million for his trudge through blockbusting Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, on the heels of Dances With Wolves, he could have commanded many more millions for another big action spectacle. Going instead for Oliver Stone’s ego spectacle, he played the thankfully calm center of that crackpot pinwheel of a movie, a decision that suggests both that he’s a taker of considered risks and that he has his greed held in check by a sane career-building mentality. Costner had a long time to hone his box-office instincts and weigh his own particular assets before hitting it big, which may explain how he has translated his limited range to a fairly diverse slate of films. (Next up is the interracial love story The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston.) Costner will continue to demand salaries beyond $6 million, but he–as a man with faith in his own choices and a strategy of choosing in favor of longevity–will be looking for his real money on the back end, which is about as honest as anybody gets in Hollywood. The only reason a pay cut would be in order for Costner is if his appearance does not improve–or, God forbid, deteriorates–from the phlegmatic skinhead look he sported at the Oscars.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Sure, he’s numero uno these days, and box-office accounting buffs are likely to remember Schwarzenegger forever: Who can ever hope to top, or even equal, his back-to-back-to-back-to-back grand slam, Twins ($112 million) followed by Total Recall ($119 million) followed by Kindergarten Cop ($91 million) followed by T2 ($205 million)? It makes the question of whether he’s worth what he gets paid (it reportedly ranges from $10 million to $30 million a picture) unnecessary, and now that that’s out of the way, here’s a word to the wise: Hard though it may now be to recollect, Charles Bronson was once our top international action star. (Who?) He was followed by Clint Eastwood (remember him?) and then Chuck Norris (best recalled as sort of the Jean-Claude Van Damme of his day). Whether–like Bronson and Eastwood–one gets sidetracked into improbable projects with co-starring roles for wives and lovers, or not, all of Hollywood’s biggest action lads have only a certain amount of time in the sun before they’re gently nudged back into the shade. But for now, Arnold is a force of nature and has managed to build a comic persona on top of his action hero image to further justify Hollywood’s investment in him. In the Action Hall of Fame, Schwarzenegger is destined to be the undisputed box-office king for some time. (Clint Eastwood will have to settle for the critic’s accolades.)

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Posted on July 26, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It goes to show that, even 25 years ago, big names didn’t always sell the audience. I don’t know, I usually went to theaters because I was interested in the material or it was something to do (I’ve made exceptions). When it comes to money though, money can be funny, because it’s tough to give an accurate monetary value on a person, and there are times when someone is probably getting less than they deserve, while others are getting more than they need.
    I got the statement in the beginning of this article that these performers are all male. Yea, woman were usually supporting players, and if they were leads it was a “chick flick” (“Steel Magnolias,”, “Fried Green Tomatoes”, etc.). Well, there was Demi Moore, who I think in this era hogged a lot of the female roles (it’s just how I see it; I have nothing against Moore, as I thought she was attractive and had a cool voice, along with ability, but I just thought she was overexposed back then, so I got sick of her).

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  2. Bill Murray sure turned that serious film issue around later on (hey, I like the remake of “The Razor’s Edge” though).
    Harrison Ford was reliable at the box office for many years; he picked, or was slated for, projects well.
    Too bad about Warren Beatty and “Bugsy” (show me a film about gangsters, and I’ll put ’em there pal), because I think it’s a fantastic film.
    I liked “Boomerang” in the theater, but I know it didn’t turn many heads.
    Kevin Costner, when this article was written he was pretty much at the top.
    The Cruise cruise, sure, he was doing his thing, that thing that he did. I buy that, that he was the only bona fide movie star of his generation; in that era, he probably could’ve sold a film about instant mashed potatoes.
    Chevy Chase, the roof was about to fall in for him after this article.
    Arnold Schwarzenegger, he still had “True Lies” in the future.
    Jack Nicholson, he couldn’t sell everything (“Man Trouble”?), but he had a core fanbase, and I always thought he could be a reason as good as any to see a film. Honestly, I didn’t care if he was The Joker or not; I thought he was great there, but The Joker is a character in of itself.
    Sly Stallone, I like “Oscar” but “Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot” speaks for itself.
    Yeah, I think “Medicine Man” is junk, real snake oil; I don’t hold it against Sean Connery, or Lorraine Bracco (loved her in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Goodfellas”) for that matter.

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  3. jeffthewildman

    July 1992

    “Then again, what Michael Crichton novel has ever been the basis for an authentic box-office blockbuster?)”

    LOLing at that line in light of what happened a year later.

    Looking at this, I find myself contrasting this with today when the era of the movie star as box office draw seems to have (with maybe a few exceptions) pretty much come to a close. Contemplating writing an article on that.

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