By David Poland email@example.com
False Trends Sidebar: How The Myth Of The Death Of The Movie Star Came About
There’s a reason why reporting on movie stars has become focused on “the problem with movie stars” instead of a realistic judgement of how the industry has changed.
As always, follow the money.
The first commercial DVD release of a feature film was Twister, for Christmas stockings in 1996.
The industry decided to make DVD a sell-thru product, as opposed to the rental business that was the primary DVD revenue stream. (The first big push for mass sell-thru VHS – aside from Disney classics – was Batman in 1989. It did well, but rental remained the primary business until DVD.)
Independence Day and Jerry Maguire, among others, followed. And then, the rell game changer in 1998… August 31… Titanic. (And Men in Black and Liar Liar and Jurassic 2 and Air Force One, etc, etc, etc.)
The DVD gold rush was on. This was one period where the idea that every movie could be profitable was pretty much true. You had to work hard to lose money. Mediocre theatrical runs became hits, hits became blockbusters, and blockbusters became life changers.
And that was when we saw the rise of the $20 million movie star. Not just the ones at the very top either. The biggest stars were demanding $30 million in cash, plus real points.
This wasn’t a case like Jack Nicholson as The Joker, when he got a massive backend payday because no one at the studio really believed the film would make as much as it did. In this period, agents cleverly figured out what the DVD revenues would look like and would demand that their clients get paid the amount that would be equal to a big chunk of that, as the unions had agreed to limit the amount that talent could get out of the DVD revenues. So they took it a different way.
And then 2006.
Costs in all areas had grown wildly out of control, in no small part because of all that crazy DVD money. The cost of production had gone wild. Marketing budgets grew exponentially and the cost of marketing DVDs was catching up to the cost of releasing the films in theatrical (allowed because there was significantly more money coming into studios from the DVD than theatrical). Talent salaries were in the nosebleeds, even for non-sequels.
Two stories defined the gravy train coming to a sudden halt. One was Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible III, which went wildly over budget and generated 27% less at the box office than M:I2. The way the deal had been done, Tom Cruise (also producing) walked away with over $65 million. DVD was already softening for feature films – the overall numbers made more attractive by TV series sales – and even with $400 million in theatrical, Paramount was about to walk away with some red ink. Sumner Redstone wanted Tom to reconsider the deal to allow breathing room for the studio. Cruise refused. And that is when it suddenly became all about Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. That was bull. Follow the money.
The second story was the end of Used Guys, a movie most of you won’t recall, because it was never made. The package was Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, and Jay Roach. Carrey had delivered his ultimate cash cow with Bruce Almighty in 2003. Stiller had Dodgeball, Meet The Fockers (with Roach), and Night At The Museum on the way at Fox. And Roach was the comedy king with Austin Powers and Fockers giving him four $300m ww grossers.
The budget for the comedy crossed the $110 million line. And Tom Rothman pulled the plug.
This was no small thing. Rothman had bet big on Stiller and was deep in business with him on the forthcoming Night at the Museum. And indeed, Stiller (who exploded in Fox’s There’s Something About Mary) would not make anything other than a Museum sequel with Fox for six years after this deal went bad.
Everything didn’t just stop on a dime and change in 2006. There were overpriced movies, bloated ideas and overpaid movie stars for years after. But 2006 was the year when Hollywood started to say “no.”
And when Hollywood started saying, “no,” the agents – who create 70% of the press in this town – freaked out. The sky was falling. They couldn’t deliver the way they were delivering. And that is when the “movie stars are over” mythology started taking hold.
And the freaking out continues.
Over the past decade, bit by bit, studios have tightened the reins. And sure enough, movies are still making money. Big movies, small movies, middle movies.
The questions for studios have little to do with movie stars. It’s whether a $30 million investment, a $100 million investment, or a $350 million investment is the best way to maximize profits. And there are good arguments for and against each of those levels… and for balancing the 3… and for picking just one level and staying with that.
Movie stars in 2017 are playing on all those levels. In the heyday of DVD, they were getting paid the entire production and P&A budget for the $30 million level themselves. But by investing in the smaller productions, some of those stars are making some very impressive money for having taken the risks. (And some are not.)
Movie stars aren’t dead. It’s just not like the good ol’ days… you know, 10 years ago.