Actors' salaries, perks decline as Hollywood confronts the recession

March 19, 1992|By David Tobenkin | David Tobenkin,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is in penny-pinching mode.

Studios typically known for their extravagances are taking second and third looks at the salaries of many well-known actors -- and making some changes.

The new cost consciousness has nearly halved the salaries of some Hollywood stars and led to stricter access on the perks that many have come to expect.

Studios increasingly are unwilling to provide stars with such niceties as free air fare for relatives and friends, assistants, and luxurious mobile homes for location work.

"The studios are looking at every single cost component and making each one justify itself," said entertainment attorney Peter Dekom.

The efforts at fiscal control have been occurring for the past year and reflect the generally stagnant market for motion pictures -- box-office grosses in 1991 were down 4.4 percent from 1990.

"All the studios are focusing on the cost of motion pictures and at the same time many of us are making somewhat fewer pictures," said Strauss Zelnick, president and chief operating officer of 20th Century Fox.

"When we have a choice of the people with whom we can work," he added, "we've been somewhat more conscious of the cost."

A recently released survey by the Screen Actors Guild showed that the number of actors earning more than $100,000 fell to 2.8 percent of total members in 1991, from 4.6 percent in 1990.

"Salaries are coming down -- unquestionably," said Rob Cain, director of research for the Screen Actors Guild.

Just a few years ago, when the economy was healthy and the addition of new exhibition mediums like home video and pay-per-view led to a growing market, matters were different.

"Part of the escalating costs in the 1980s of making movies were the built-in raises for actors without regard to whether their last movie was a hit," said Dave Davis, an analyst for Paul Kagan Associates Inc. in Carmel, Calif.

Several big time stars have been considered "movie insurance" -- money that's paid to assure at least a minimum box-office turnout. Such stars have commanded more than $6 million (more than $4 million for the few women in the group).

But for actors who haven't been delivering, those premiums are being lowered.

"When you have an actor who doesn't sell tickets, you don't pay them a level that assumes that they do," Mr. Dekom noted.

Bruce Willis, who received $12 million for the 1991 box-office flop "Hudson Hawk," saw his salary negotiated down from $13 million to $9 million for his new film, "Three Rivers," according to weekly Variety.

Studios also are more willing to confront rising stars over salaries. Daily Variety reported that Columbia Pictures, which since its acquisition by Sony Corp. has been viewed as among the most munificent in contract negotiations, recently offered Andie MacDowell far less than the $1.75 million her agent requested to play opposite Bill Murray in "Ground Hog Day."

"She's a $750,000 player," the publication quoted Columbia chairman Mark Canton as saying.

One group these cuts have not touched are a select number of superstars, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Julia Roberts and Kevin Costner. For their salaries, Mr. Dekom says, "the sky's the limit."

Arnold Schwarzenegger was rumored to have earned $15 million for last summer's "Terminator II: Judgment Day." Michael Douglas was reported to have received $14 million for the upcoming "Basic Instinct."

"The best box-office draws now command what entire movies used to cost," reported a Paul Kagan Associates newsletter. "No one expects them to work for less in the future, even if they lay an egg along the way."

Kagan suggests that the most powerful stars could even own copyrights to their next films.

Even more revolutionary, the newsletter suggests, would be a move by several of the most powerful stars to band together and increase negotiating leverage, much as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks did in 1919 when they formed United Artists.

For the moment, studios increasingly have hedged their bets by paying today's superstars a percentage of the film's grosses instead of large sums up front.

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