Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #340: The Stars Come Down...


Patrick Goldstein at the Big Picture blog reports that the mega-bux star salaries are coming down to something more in line with their box office performance.

Now I'm not against people making good money, hell I wish everyone made a good living. However, this is the real world, there's no such thing as a unicorn ranch, and salaries have to bear some sort of relationship to what the market will bear. One of the key problems is that a lot of today's so-called "stars" rake in multi-million dollar paydays, despite dropping more bombs than Curtis LeMay.*

This is not the way to run a railroad, and is a key reason why Hollywood production costs have an inflation rate akin to Zimbabwe.

Now how did star salaries get so divorced from reality for so long?

Well, I think it's time again for me to explain my little thing I call the "self fulfilling idiocy."

A self-fulfilling idiocy is someone's idea of a solution that only serves to create more and more problems, and anyone with half a brain cell can see those problems coming, but go through with it anyway.

Hollywood's history of the self-fulfilling idiocy goes back to the 1950s. Before then actors, even major stars, were contract players. They were well paid, but were strictly on a weekly salary and didn't get a share of the profits, outside of a raise if they're consistently successful.

The 1950s marked the beginning of the end of this system. Stars who survived WW2 weren't going to sit back and be content with just a salary when the studios were raking in millions. They started to buck the contract system, and become their own producers, and negotiating a cut from the profits.

The studios then had two options.

1. They could follow the fundamental precept of capitalism, and run their business in a way that makes all sides of a business deal happy.


2. They could do something really stupid to try to pinch pennies, no matter that it will make a lot of enemies and cost them exponentially more in the long run.

The studios went for Option #2.

They immediately started making their accounting practices so damn complicated that you need 50 accountants, a smell-hound named Hooch, and your cousin from Newfoundland to figure out who paid for lunch.

Now this screwing policy crashed into two things...

1. The rise of the super-agent and the mega-agency. These people fought like bastards for as much money for their clients as they could get. Why? Because they get 10% you dummy. These folks accrued massive amounts of clout and they weren't afraid to use it.

2. The fact that studios still treated actors like they were on salary. No matter how their films performed, their base pay, (also called The Quote) never went down, only up with every hit. So actors were still being paid big money even though it had been years since they had a profitable feature.

This is a perfect storm for a financial crash and burn. Now this movement to curb star salaries is a nice beginning, but it is just a beginning.

The Studio CEOs should be next.

*Obscure historical reference alert, Dennis Miller Level 7!


  1. A couple of the other things that drove up star salaries are the over-importance of opening weekends (which also became self-fulfilling when movies started to open on thousands of screens) and the oversupply of projects.

    Stars can only deliver opening weekends and since the "blockbuster" arrived in the late 70's studios have put everything into those weekends.

    And when it comes to choosing which of the thousands of projects to make, the studios (which are really only distributors) look for the ones with the least risk - so, they base the scripts on books or plays or something that already has an established audience and the require that stars be attatched.

    It'll be tough for distributors to break this model - it's easier to open one blockbuster on two thousand screens than to open twenty smaller films.

  2. That plays right into the age of the super-agents. They say: "Look at the opening weekend my client got you,he's bigger than Gabby Hayes" as one of their chief arguments to put that quote up another notch.

    Though this summer shows that star-power can often be a negative. Most of the big hits this past summer starred either unknowns, or minor stars, and a lot of star vehicles either underperformed, or sank like a stone.

    Concepts seem to be king when it comes to opening weekends.

    And I've got many posts and have a chapter on my pop culture book about the business reasons behind the "blockbusters only" business model of the major studios.

  3. "there's no such thing as a unicorn ranch"

    And Alyson Hannigan, etc... :-)

    You can't imagine how much I'm waiting for the day I'll receive a review copy of your book about the industry.

    I like your comment about Marvel on Nikki's blog. Er, wait... I like all your comments on Nikki's blog!

  4. Thanks for support Thierry. I noticed the young whippersnappers didn't care for my particular brand of snarkasm, talk about taking things a little too seriously.