“Cash break zero” is the new buzz phrase in Hollywood. It used to be that stars (and other key talent) on a movie earned extra cash above their salary on every box office dollar. Now that’s dropping to zero until both production and marketing costs are covered. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve spoken to actors, agents and distributors over the past few weeks. and the picture is almost unversally bleak. Production has stalled, salaries are plummeting and Beverly Hills’ boutiques are standing empty as the financial crisis hits home. Moreover, a series of high profile movies, including films starring Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe, have been either cancelled or brutally budget-squeezed, and even big name actors and directors are taking 30-50% pay cuts.
Now, the difference between $20m and $15m a movie is admittedly nothing to cry over. We don’t need to weep for Julia Roberts. But a large chunk of Hollywood — lawyers, managers, agents — is paid on percentages; and when the top gets sliced, the bottom starts to hurt. That’s not to mention the set construction, lighting, transport and production crews left standing idle and unpaid each time a movie gets stalled.
So how does this square with one of the most successful box office years in recent memory? Well, there have been summer hits — like Star Trek, Harry Potter and The Hangover. But there have also been expensive, star-studded failures, like Terminator: Salvation, Land of the Lost and Judd Apatow’s upcoming Funny People, which just opened to painful reviews and resoundingly empty cinemas. Also, the movies opening now were greenlit and largely shot last year, when decision making seemed easier. Faced not just with the financial crisis, but with a string of other issues — the collapse of the DVD market, the inexorable power of piracy, consumer confusion over HD, 3D, Blu-Ray and the rest — the studios are going through a painful period of analysis, and they’re finding that the picture isn’t pretty.
They’re also questioning the value of movie stars. If Clive Owen and Julia Roberts (Duplicity), Will Ferrell (Land of the Lost) and Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen (Funny People) can’t guarantee good box office, what can? Instead, they’re looking at successes like Star Trek and Transformers, which had no major stars and correspondingly lower salaries. If you can make a star dependent on the role, rather than other way around, the reasoning goes, the power stays with the studio not the performer. That’s why we’ve seen high profile replacements of actors in Iron Man and Twilight: no-one is bigger than the movie, and the studios want to keep it that way.
There’s some optimism about the end of the year, which will bring us James Cameron’s long-awaited 3D epic Avatar, which caused several hundred sci-fi fans to spontaneously combust at Comic-Con — and contains no stars you will have heard of, apart from a small role for Sigourney Weaver, who of course has form with aliens. And there’s a lot to look forward to, including Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Richard Kelly’s The Box. There’s no shortage of ambition here (and these are only the Hollywood films: there’s an exciting range of British movies that we’ll talk about soon), but there’s a lot riding on these pictures. If we don’t want a diet of Transformers (memorably described by Charlie Brooker as “like being pinned to the ground while an angry dishwasher shat in your face for two hours”) it’s up to us to show up at the box office, and show that quality pays.