Is Rich and Richer Dumb and Dumber? : Movies: Jim Carrey's $20-million fee for 'The Cable Guy' alarms some in the industry, while his managers call it a 'genius' move by Sony.

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When superstar comic Jim Carrey signed a deal last week guaranteeing him at least $20 million to star in the comedy "The Cable Guy," it marked a historic--and, to some, troubling--upping of the Hollywood salary ante.

One studio head, who declined to be identified, called it "as seminal and destructive a payment as when Larry Gordon and Barry Diller paid $5 million for Bruce Willis to do 'Die Hard' [in 1988]. That also came out of nowhere [Willis was as yet unproven as an action star] and set the pace for actors' salaries."

Speaking at a business conference last week, former Orion production head Mike Medavoy said Carrey's deal sets a "perilous and dangerous precedent."

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In an interview, Medavoy stood by his remarks but stressed that he was not criticizing the merits of this specific deal, but rather its long-term implications. (Previously, Sylvester Stallone had agreed to a deal with Savoy Pictures that will pay him $20 million for a yet-to-be-determined action film.)

Sony Pictures Chairman Mark Canton says the Carrey deal could represent a windfall for his company.

"It was a business decision," he said. "And if it's the right one, it'll be very profitable."

"The Cable Guy" is budgeted at $38 million to $40 million, leaving it far cheaper to produce than many summer films and less than one-fourth the cost of this summer's "Waterworld." Carrey will receive $20 million as an advance against 15% of every dollar the film takes in at the box office worldwide. A global gross for "Cable Guy" close to the $300 million brought in by Carrey's summer 1994 hit "The Mask" could earn the star a staggering $40 million or more.

What troubles James G. Robinson, owner of Morgan Creek Pictures (which produced Carrey's first hit, "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective"), is that the deal calls for both the $20-million salary and 15% gross participation.

"I'm making movies to make money," he said. "That kind of number with a back-end gross doesn't make business sense to me."

The Carrey deal is significant for Canton because it brings "the biggest box-office star in the world today"--who appears on the covers of the current issues of Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines--into the company's crucial summer lineup.

With Carrey on board, "The Cable Guy" becomes the comedy crown jewel in Sony's tentative summer '96 schedule, which includes the thriller "The Fan," from director Tony Scott; Danny DeVito's "Mathilda," from Roald Dahl's novel; a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie; Chris O'Donnell in "Afterlife"; and possibly "Multiplicity," a comedy starring Michael Keaton.

Outbidding at least one major studio for Carrey's next assignment also augurs "the beginning of a long relationship with Jim," Canton said. It is one the Sony chief is eager to develop, for as Carrey's managers, Eric Gold and Jimmy Miller, told Variety last week, "He's [Canton] going to look like a genius on Monday morning."

When Monday arrived, the world knew that Carrey's latest release, "Batman Forever," had opened to a record-breaking $52.8-million weekend--his fourth hit in a row.

(While Carrey is by no means the lone draw of the third installment of the highly popular "Batman" series, industry sentiment is that he was a catalyst for the film's record debut.)

And given the positive reaction to the "Ace Ventura" sequel trailer being shown with "Batman," his winning streak could easily reach five.

It was a little more than a year ago that Carrey earned $450,000 for "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective." Wisely, Morgan Creek's Robinson had already signed him for a sequel. (Although Robinson would not discuss figures, Carrey reportedly is getting a flat $8 million--no gross-profit participation--for "Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls," due later this year.)

Following "Ace" and his work in last summer's "The Mask," New Line Cinema paid Carrey $7 million up front for "Dumb and Dumber"--a hefty increase that raised some eyebrows. But "Jim was already getting offers for $5 million a film," said company production head Michael DeLuca, adding that it was worth paying a premium to lock him into a deal for the Christmas 1994 release.

"Dumb" cost only $16 million to make. Naysayers were silenced when "Mask" and "Dumb" each grossed about $120 million domestically. And though comedy doesn't always translate around the world, "Ace" and "Mask" proved potent box office overseas.

Still, if Carrey is making $20 million now, where does he go from here? That's the real significance of the Carrey deal, industry executives said, as well as the potential ripple effect.

"If Carrey is getting $20 million, then what are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks worth?" wondered the anonymous studio head.

Canton disagrees: "Twenty million is not the floor for other actors, or even for Carrey."

In order to attract the star to a basic comedy like "The Cable Guy" (originally slated for Chris Farley, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts), the offer had to be too good to turn down, DeLuca contended. "If it's just core comedy material like 'Dumb' was, you have to pay him to do it. If it was different or challenging material, you can negotiate."

Carrey recently turned down $18 million for "The Thief of Santa Monica."

DeLuca said some of the reaction to the $20-million deal has been "hysterical." He's paying Willis $16.5 million for the upcoming action film "Gundown," a move New Line thought financially sound since the film will cost only $40 million. But that doesn't mean that a few actors have totally taken over Hollywood, he said. "It's a studio's responsibility to have an eclectic blend of material." And if the material is right, DeLuca added, stars don't necessarily hold you hostage.

Nonetheless, the Carrey deal could threaten Hollywood's already slim profit margins, said the anonymous studio head, making it less and less appealing to Wall Street and other outside investors.

In recent years the industry has been propped up by the growth of the video business and foreign sales. But video has leveled out, and if foreign business were to decline, in the event, for example, of a stronger dollar, the industry could face a serious reversal.

Further, the mega-salary calls more undue attention to Hollywood, Medavoy said, when its morals and its accounting practices--a reference to the "Forrest Gump" profits controversy--are already under attack.

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