Hollywood, once again, is in a panic over star salaries.
In June, Columbia Pictures shelled out an unprecedented $20 million to Jim Carrey to star in "Cable Guy," and Universal Pictures later made a $20-million deal for the comedian to star in "Liar, Liar."
Not to be outdone, Sylvester Stallone signed a three-picture deal with Universal for $60 million--after he already had received a $20-million film deal from Savoy Pictures.
But the deal that really raised eyebrows throughout the film industry occurred this week, when 18-year-old Alicia Silverstone, who stars in the teen comedy "Clueless," signed a two-picture pact with Columbia that was reported in the trades to bring her as much as $10 million.
"When I read that Alicia Silverstone was paid $5 million a picture, I said, 'This is crazy!' " said one top studio executive. "What does that mean Meg Ryan gets for her next film? If Alicia Silverstone gets that much, Sandra Bullock should get $15 million."
Sources knowledgeable about the deal said, however, that the deal would bring Silverstone closer to $8 million, if both pictures are made, or $4 million if only one is made.
For years, Hollywood has watched with a mixture of fascination and dread as multimillion-dollar fees paid to A-list actors climbed into double digits. But in recent weeks, even veteran insiders have expressed serious misgivings about the latest salary increases to stars who are not on the A-list.
"I'm very happy for my agent friends," said producer Arnold Kopelson. "They make the world go around. But I think somewhere it has to stop and it will only stop when all the studios decide they are not going to spend these sums of money."
The escalating salaries are being driven by a combination of forces, ranging from a booming market overseas for American films to the realization by studios that there are only a small number of actors who can bring audiences into the theater on the strength of their names.
But by paying Carrey and Stallone $20 million a picture, the major studios have now set a standard against which all other salaries in the industry will be judged.
And, if there is one man who has become the lightning rod for criticism from his competitors for turning on the spigot, it is Columbia/TriStar Chairman Mark Canton.
In June, Canton was receiving widespread praise for making the Carrey deal. After all, the rubber-faced comedian has appeared in a string of blockbusters that include "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "The Mask."
But now, some are lambasting Canton for the Silverstone pact.
"It's so irresponsible," said one rival studio executive. "He's ruining the business. The Silverstone deal was the nail in the coffin."
Said a talent agent: "I think people are ticked at what happened. . . . It drives everybody up."
Canton defends his action, which he says that some competitors have praised as a "strategic decision."
"We do not do business here by throwing things against the wall. Silverstone will star in 'Excess Baggage,' which will cost in the $16-million range," said Canton. " 'Clueless' is going to do $60 million in business [for Paramount]. If I can make the next Alicia Silverstone movie for $16 million, I'm doing my business."
But the young actress' lucrative deal has left other observers and insiders mystified.
Following the success of her first high-profile film, "Clueless"--in which she earned rave reviews as a ditzy Beverly Hills teen-ager--Silverstone's deal includes the creation of her own company, First Kiss Productions, and puts her among the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood today.
But Barry Josephson, the Columbia executive who oversaw the deal with Silverstone, defended it, saying:
"We read the reviews, we saw her at work in 'Clueless' and we saw that she has great comedic talent. Everyone here was highly impressed with what she did in 'Clueless,' and we think she has a great future. . . . She has a young audience and, obviously, it's a great audience to have because they go to a lot of movies."
Elaine Goldsmith, an agent who works with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, also defended the deal: "Sometimes it's what the economy dictates and she just may be the right age and have the right look and talent at the right time."
But while the studios may justify giving $20 million to Carrey, Stallone or other superstars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas and Tom Cruise--actors who have proven they can "open" a picture merely by their presence --the ripple effect on salaries throughout the industry has the studios worried.
Oscar-winning Denzel Washington, who has yet to carry a blockbuster on his own, saw his fee rise from $7.5 million for Paramount's "Virtuosity" to $10 million in "Courage Under Fire," at 20th Century Fox.
Kurt Russell, who received $7.5 million for "Executive Decision" at Warners Bros., had a surprise hit last year in MGM's sci-fi film "Stargate." Now, Russell is getting $10 million to appear in "Escape From L.A."
Martin Lawrence, who appeared in the Columbia hit "Bad Boys," reportedly has inked a three-picture deal with the studio worth $20 million.
And Charlie Sheen recently went from $4 million for Cinergi's "Shadow Conspiracy" to $5.25 million for LIVE Entertainment's "Shockwave."
One agent summed up the ripple effect this way:
"Wesley Snipes [who reportedly made $7.5 million for Columbia's yet to be released action film "Money Train"] will now look at Denzel Washington and say, 'My numbers are bigger than his. I have justification to get $12.5 million.' And Richard Gere has also got to be looking at Denzel."
Said another industry insider: "Tommy Lee Jones is going to go into the stratosphere. He'll probably make between $7 million and $10 million."
Richard Jewell, a professor of film history at USC, said that the industry is now clearly a seller's market.
"If they think an actor or actress has any sort of unique quality or special talent--and that doesn't have to be too much--they will give them this much money and have no qualms about it, because they think that person is what they need to draw an audience," Jewell said.
"This really isn't too surprising, especially when they sign someone like Sylvester Stallone for $60 million, and he hasn't even had a hit film in a while," he added. "They gamble, and they hope they'll make money."
What is driving studio chiefs crazy is that they know that with bigger salaries come bigger film budgets.
"If you have a A-list movie star now, it will cost you no less than $70 million [to make the picture] if he just sits in a room and talks--and $100 million if you have any action," one top studio executive said, only half in jest.
The risk, of course, is that if a $100-million movie bombs, the studios could be left hurting and executives could see their careers short-circuited.
To reduce the risk, studios agree to pay less upfront fees to A-list stars in return for a piece of the back-end grosses. A star can earn millions if the movie becomes a box-office hit, but also risks getting nothing if it bombs.
What is happening now, insiders say, is that studios are signing actors to multi-picture deals to assure themselves that they have the stars available when they need them--and to prevent the competition from snaring them.
But there are drawbacks to paying actors big salaries.
Kopelson, who has produced such hits as "The Fugitive" starring Ford and who will begin filming "The Eraser" starring Schwarzenegger on Sept. 11, said he has mixed emotions about hyper-inflated star salaries.
"I think if you put the A-plus actors in your movies, you are assured that the film will open," Kopelson said. "But you must be certain that you have that A-plus actor, [and] you better have an A-plus script. Without that, it doesn't make any sense to pay the actor the money.
Where will it end?
It won't, said entertainment attorney Peter Dekom. "It may plateau or it may contract for a moment, but it isn't going to stop."