One of the most hyped movies of the summer is "Armageddon," a nonstop barrage of action and sci-fi opening Wednesday and starring Bruce Willis. The $140-million film's blockbuster status is considered a foregone conclusion in Hollywood--despite the fact that Willis' last three movies, "The Fifth Element," "The Jackal" and, most recently, "Mercury Rising," didn't exactly break domestic box-office records.
Willis ranks as one of a handful of magic names in movies today--someone whose agreement to appear in a film makes all the difference in whether a studio makes the film or not. Along with a few other select actors like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, Willis still gets the big bucks, $20 million a film.
Why? Despite his recent track record, "he's one of the biggest action stars in the world," says entertainment industry analyst James Ulmer, who regularly tracks actors' box-office clout. Every so often the media question whether stars are worth that kind of money. The answer, at least for action films, is still yes.
"Action movies are very expensive and the decision to make them is completely based on financial models of what these guys draw on a global basis," says producer Sean Daniel, one of the producers of "The Jackal."
The upside on action films is enormous. Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" and Ford's "Air Force One" were gigantic hits, grossing well in excess of $300 million. That's why major action stars are better paid than other actors (exceptions include Jim Carrey for his comedies and Tom Hanks, the rare star who draws in almost any kind of film).
Most Hollywood movies travel well outside the U.S. Action movies travel extremely well. They contain few cultural or language barriers--an explosion is an explosion is an explosion. Overseas is where all the box-office growth has been over the past decade. And with China and other densely populated Asian markets like India and Indonesia growing stronger, the foreign market is where all the extra film revenue will come for at least the next decade, according to one former studio head turned producer.
Sure, romances like "Titanic," "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman" were mega-hits everywhere. But the worldwide acceptance of such films, Hollywood has traditionally believed, is unpredictable. The studios hate unpredictability. The "Die Hard" series (starring Willis), the "Lethal Weapon" films (starring Mel Gibson)--those are sure things. And the major studios are willing to pay almost any price for a sure thing. Warner Bros. is shelling out about 40% of its return on "Lethal Weapon 4" to Gibson, Danny Glover and other profit participants, making it virtually impossible for the studio to recoup on the $120-million film, which opens July 10.
But that doesn't matter to the people who buy films abroad, says Rick Hess, president of production at Phoenix Pictures, who formerly worked in foreign sales. "The foreign sales business is very reactive. Once an actor has hit abroad, it's hard to take that value away from him."
Even before he proved his action chops, Willis was highly paid, demanding a then-unprecedented $5 million for the first "Die Hard." And he hasn't looked back, even though "The Fifth Element," "The Jackal" and "Mercury Rising" did substantially less than $100 million in the U.S. ("Mercury Rising" barely cracked $30 million.) But "The Fifth Element," a French production, was an enormous hit overseas, particularly in France, where it ranks as the top-grossing domestic movie of all time.
"The Jackal," which earned about $55 million in the U.S., grossed more than $150 million worldwide, producer Daniel says. "There's only one way to calculate an actor's worth," Daniel says, "and that's on a global basis. On that level there are only Cruise, Ford, Gibson and Willis."
If "Armageddon" succeeds, the actor's recent underperforming movies will be erased from the memory bank. That's what happened when Willis starred in "Die Hard With a Vengeance," made in 1995. The third in the John McClane action series (a fourth, "Tears of the Sun," is on the drawing boards) pumped the adrenaline back into Willis' career after a few duds, including "Striking Distance" and "The Color of Night." Worldwide, the film grossed almost $500 million.
For Willis, that kind of franchise is like having comeback insurance from Lloyd's of London. You can always cash in on the policy.
If Willis has an Achilles' heel, says one producer, it's that if you meet his asking price, he will do almost anything. Why else would he agree to star in "The Color of Night" or even "The Last Boy Scout"? On the other hand, notes a former studio head turned producer, Willis is one of the few major stars who will work free for a juicy role. He received pocket change for his supporting part in "Pulp Fiction" and no money up front for "12 Monkeys" (for which he took only a percentage). Both were major worldwide hits and, along with "Die Hard With a Vengeance," Willis was back on top again. (He's on the lo-cal salary diet again with the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," for which he waived his usual fee to hone his acting chops.)
For "Armageddon," Willis actually worked for less than his usual fee. It's part of a special two-picture arrangement for Disney, as thanks for bailing him out of a jam, according to studio sources. A couple of years ago Willis walked off a movie called "Broadway Brawler" a week into production, a serious breach of contract. "That burned him," says analyst Ulmer. "It made him a lot more suspicious with foreign bankers and distributors."
Cinergi, the film production company behind "Broadway Brawler," sued him. Since Disney was in the process of buying Cinergi, the studio was able to cut a deal on the Willis suit. In return, Willis promised it a more favorable price quote on two films. (Sources close to Disney report he's receiving a flat fee of $14 million on the film.)
Regardless, if "Armageddon" is a blockbuster, Willis can easily make that up on his next action deal at another studio. The actor's eclectic choices, while sometimes questionable, have given him a cachet--and an edge--over several other action stars. Sylvester Stallone tried a similar strategy with "Cop Land," but it didn't work. Arnold Schwarzenegger has dabbled in comedy, with mixed results. Being an action star who can actually act distinguishes him from the pack and places him along more versatile leading men like Cruise, Ford and Gibson, who appeal to a broader audience.
"People forget that the international market also includes women, and, unlike [Jean-Claude] Van Damme and Steven Seagal, Willis also appeals to females," Ulmer says.
Appeal to women is also why John Travolta, Carrey, Hanks, Robin Williams and Michael Douglas can command top dollar despite having no serious action profile. For the time being, the action club remains exclusive, with very few up-and-comers like Will Smith and Nicolas Cage, says Ulmer. And if it takes $25 million to lure one of the chosen few into a particular action film--or a bigger cut of the profits--what's to prevent the escalation?
"Nothing," says attorney David Colden, principal in the entertainment law firm of Colden, McKuin. All it takes is a studio shake-up. Both Universal and Warner Bros. have been in turmoil recently, leading to decisions like Warners' giving away the farm on "Lethal Weapon 4." A hit-starved studio could try to force its way back into the game the way Sony Pictures did when it first broke through the price ceiling to pay Carrey $20 million to star in "The Cable Guy."
Or it could be a producer out to snare an unattainable piece of talent. Lion's Gate recently dangled as much as $22 million in front of Leonardo DiCaprio to star in "American Psycho" to have the privilege of the actor's next high-profile post-"Titanic" screen appearance. DiCaprio has replaced Brad Pitt (who replaced Cruise) as the global heartthrob du jour. His "Man in the Iron Mask" has already taken in $150 million around the world.
"But female fans can be very fickle," warns the former studio head. And that's why Cruise and Pitt ("Seven," "The Devil's Own") added action to their repertoires. It's why Hanks donned a spacesuit for "Apollo 13" and Travolta starred in "Face/Off" and "Broken Arrow." Ben Affleck went right from the warm and cuddly "Good Will Hunting" to co-star with Willis in "Armageddon." So don't be surprised if his co-star Matt Damon or DiCaprio check into an action vehicle in the near future.
But since "The Cable Guy" proved to be Carrey's lowest-grossing movie, what price box-office insurance? "I've had great success in paying the right guys $20 million," boasts "Mercury Rising" producer Brian Grazer, who ponied up not only for Willis but for Carrey on "Liar, Liar" and Gibson for "Ransom."
If these actors were only working for a flat fee--even a $20-million flat fee--few industry insiders would say they're not worth it. Just their ability to open a movie makes them desirable. It's the percentage deal (10% to 15%) tacked onto the salary that's more troublesome. If Willis or Cruise receives $20 million and has 10% of the movie, when the film clears $200 million worldwide, he collects 10% of every penny the studio collects thereafter. If he has 15%, he starts collecting his percentage after the film has grossed only $133 million. (Cruise, for example, reportedly pulled down $60 million for his participation in "Mission: Impossible," which looks to be Cruise's action franchise; he starts a second installment very soon under the direction of John Woo.)
Such deals take some of the block out of blockbuster. With not only actors but certain directors and producers getting a cut of a film, studios often have to give away as much as 25% of a movie. "It's one of the reasons studios don't make money anymore," Colden says. "The two or three smash hits a studio has every year no longer pay for the eight or nine films that fail."
Another argument against superstar salaries, according to Phoenix Pictures production head Hess, is that the high-priced star model of determining what films get made is being exploded by the enormous success of films like "The Full Monty," "Good Will Hunting," "Scream" and "I Know What you Did Last Summer"--"movies that work on an ensemble basis," according to Hess. "The moviegoing public is more open to movies that don't have huge movie stars than they have been in a long time."
That's also been true of some recent action films. "Deep Impact" and "Independence Day" were concept-driven and returned a greater profit to the studios than any of the star-driven action films.
But by and large, stunts, car crashes and special effects have gotten so expensive, says analyst Ulmer, that it's difficult to finance action movies independently. That means only Hollywood can afford to make them, "and Hollywood is skewed toward the high-end stars," he says.
So as long as action is a viable genre--and it has been since "The Great Train Robbery" at the turn of the century--action stars like Willis will be calling the salary shots.