Monday, 10 December 2012

The Basics: Star Salaries.

It's that time of year again, the time when Forbes magazine puts out their list of Hollywood's most overpaid stars, and this year's most overpaid star was Eddie Murphy for delivering the least for the huge salary he gets paid. (I'm not sure if they count the costs of his on-set perks and entourage which is reportedly substantial even by Hollywood standards.)

Now stars exist for one reason, to sell movies to audiences. 

In a world ruled by the logic and reason of a free market the bigger the audience a star can attract, the bigger the paycheck that star will get.

However, logic, reason, and free market principles don't really apply in Hollywood since it works very hard to exist in a universe entirely within itself.  Which is why Eddie Murphy, whose non-Shrek movie output for the last decade has dropped more bombs than Curtis LeMay, is still able to cash multimillion dollar payoffs.

I'm going to use this post, and Murphy and others as examples, to try to explain why stars get paid what they're paid, and then explain why it keeps happening long past their sell-by date.

There are two main causes for the size of star salaries. There is economic, which is fairly simple, and political, which is, like most things having to do with Hollywood and money, needlessly complicated. 

ECONOMIC: Basically this means that an actor has been in more than one hit movie. This means that in the eyes of the Hollywood decision makers, these actors can put bums in seats and cash in the Swiss bank account. They want someone who can attract ticket buyers to keep working, and be happy, so they get a boost in pay, usually ranging in the millions of dollars per picture.

But no one has a 100% hit record, and all good things must come to an end, so there must be a reason why so many stars keep getting the big bucks.

That's when things get...

POLITICAL:  No, I'm not talking about who people vote for. This goes along a definition David Mamet once said that I'll bastardize paraphrase: "Politics is all the nonsense that gets in the way of accomplishing the task at hand."

The Axis of Ego is a hotbed of those kinds of politics, and they have more to do with determining star salaries than simple economics. These factors include:

Track Record: You see when the decision makers of Hollywood look at the track record of an actor, there's a strange case of willful blindness. They treat every film as if it was a starring vehicle for that actor and that audiences paid money to see them. A good example is Eddie Murphy's role in the Shrek movies. The Shrek movies did extremely well, and critics cited Murphy's performance as the Donkey for praise. However, was the presence of Murphy and co-stars Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz the biggest cause of the success of the franchise?

Probably not. Remember, it was an animated film for kids, and the odds that its target audience knew, cared, or were willing to pay money to see those actors do other things, are pretty long.

You didn't see Shrek fans flocking to see Mike Myers' Love Guru, so why expect them to flock to see Meet Dave

This is loosely connected to...

Name/Face Recognition: This is the idea that if people know who someone is, they are willing to pay money to see their movies.

It's not true, but I'll get to that in a second.

Now you might think that the factors I just gave you are economic, but they fall prey to the political machinations of...

Agents/Managers: Remember that agents and managers earn their living from collecting a percentage from the paychecks they negotiate for their clients. It is in their best interest to try to maximize what their client can get, because they too have bills to pay. (And remember, they can't rely on the 'profit sharing' Hollywood studios promise their clients, thanks to the industry's ongoing self-fulfilling idiocy.)

So they play up the positives of the track record, downplay the negatives, and if their client has a cameo in movie that does well they're going to play it as if their client's charisma was solely responsible  for its success.


The studio bosses either don't know the full story when they go into negotiations, or they just don't want to create static in their relationships with the agents. It's better to just pay too much for someone who doesn't really deserve it, to make sure things run more smoothly when they're negotiating with that same agent for a client that is worth the money.

It's not their money, so why should they care.


Then there are the...

Publicists: These are the people who handle the publicity for their movie star clients. They're the ones who get people on magazine covers, and book the multiple "exclusive" interviews where their clients whine about all the media attention they get.

The media outlets generally go along with whatever the publicists want. They need a steady stream material to fill their publishing/broadcast/posting schedules and will pretty much take anything, especially if it means getting first crack at the really juicy story with the real star who can drive sales/ratings/and page views.

This means that publicists can manufacture name recognition for their newer clients, or maintain it for someone with great success in their past. 

Take Jennifer Aniston as the example of the power of publicists. She and her handlers are masters of generating media exposure for absolutely no reason. These bursts of media dominance pretty much guarantees that she's going to get at least $10+ million per picture even though she couldn't sell tickets to the last bomb shelter in the world during a nuclear war.

Then there is...

Peer Pressure: Remember that the Axis of Ego is a comparably small and isolated community. This isolation makes it a hell of a lot like high school with money. The "cool kids" dominate the social scene, and if you, as a studio executive, don't pay the proper obeisance to the cool kids, you might not get invited to the right parties to hang out with the right people. If you don't hang out with the right people, you might not be able to make the right deals with those right people.

That might cost you your job, and your expense account.

So, it's better to just give in and let the cool kids get their way, because it's not your money anyway.


Now there have been attempts to correct the erratically upward nature of star salaries, but I don't really expect them to go too far. There's just too much interference.

Those are the basics of star salaries.

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