Brad Pitt Says Eight-Figure Paydays for Movie Stars Are 'Dead' -- Is He Right? (ANALYSIS)
Poor Brad Pitt.
He told the BBC that he's having to learn how to get by on less than $10 million per movie. In fact, he said, so is the rest of Hollywood's A-list, since the era of eight-figure salaries is over.
"Yeah, that thing died," Pitt said of the age of the multi-million dollar payday. "That arithmetic doesn't really work right now." He noted that tough economic times have made Hollywood studios wary of paying for anything but huge action spectacles ("tentpoles," in Hollywood jargon, since they prop up the rest of a studio's offerings), so there's not much money left to pay stars.
"A lot of the studios have been challenged because of the economic downturn as well so they've been betting on bigger, more tentpole kinds of things," he said, though he added that cost limitations do invite hungry low-budget filmmakers to get creative. "That opens up a vacuum for really interesting new filmmakers to come in." But how valid is Pitt's analysis? After all he's still making a lot more than $10 million per year.
The Wrap, which picked up the Pitt interview from the BBC, thinks Pitt is being disingenuous. After all, according to Forbes, he earned $25 million last year. Life partner Angelina Jolie earned $20 million. And some stars earned even more. Kristen Stewart made $34.5 million and Tom Cruise made $75 million.
The Wrap is being a little disingenuous here. After all, those fees represent more than one movie apiece. (Stewart, for instance, earned $25 million to make both "Breaking Dawn" films.) Also, Pitt is talking about up-front paydays. But many stars choose to take smaller fees up front in return for a greater percentage of the gross receipts after the film is released. In Cruise's case, he tends to take little or no money up front and gets nearly all his money from back-end deals.
But then, Pitt is being cagey, too. The truth is that, while studios are economizing, there are still a few things that they'll spend money on, in the right circumstances, in order to have some box office insurance. One is a familiar title or concept (one that's been essentially pre-marketed as a TV show, book, comic, or previous movie). The other is a star, especially since names like Pitt and Jolie and Cruise and Depp are still magical overseas, even if not so much here at home. They can't guarantee a solid opening, but investment in a star is still seen as a way of mitigating risk. (That's what I mean by "insurance" -- insurance against the executive who greenlit the project losing his or her studio job for not following conventional wisdom by not hiring a costly star.)
Every few months it seems, someone is writing an obituary for the days of well-paid A-list movie stars. It's certainly true that stars are less important to the box office than they used to be, and that action movies where the familiar character or premise is the star don't need an expensive A-lister or even someone well-known in the lead role. (Think of Chris Hemsworth before Thor, or Andrew Garfield before Spider-Man, or Jennifer Lawrence before Katniss Everdeen.)
Still, the right star in the right project is still worth an eight-figure payday. At this point, you couldn't make Breaking Dawn without Stewart, and since the movies are an all-but-guaranteed hit, her lavish paycheck makes sense. At the same time, for the forthcoming drama On The Road, a much riskier project, she readily accepted just $2.5 million, one-tenth of her Breaking Dawn salary. Stars of her stature, or Pitt's, are happy to take less money up front, even if there's no assurance of a healthy back end, just to play a role they think is especially interesting or could lead to an Oscar nomination. That's what Pitt was talking about when he referred to the more creative films being made on the margins of the studio system.
It's also why Pitt said the fee was not what motivated him to choose his projects. "You take the roles for the roles," he told the BBC, "and you've just got to balance economics like everyone does."
Right, because he's just a typical working dad with six kids to feed. Something tells me he can afford to be choosier than most actors!