Nick Picks | Are Movie Stars Being Paid Too Much Money?

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If the most recent films featuring Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and other overpaid actors have taught us anything, it’s that studios are relying too heavily on star power to sell their movies. One of the biggest problems with relying on star power is that the stars themselves demand a lot of money. Movie studios may think they’re playing it safe by investing in big names to carry movies. In the end, though, they usually pay a hefty price. The most notorious example of the past few years would be 2010’s How Do You Know.

To get this star-studded romantic comedy off the ground, Reese Witherspoon was paid $15 million, Jack Nicholson was paid $12 million, Owen Wilson was paid $10 million, and Paul Rudd was paid $3 million. That’s $40 million dollars in a film that ultimately cost $120 million! The box office totals for How Do You Know barely even covered the main cast’s salaries, making only $48.7 million worldwide. This begs the question, “Are movie stars being paid too much money?”

Granted, sometimes it pays off to invest in a performer, even if their salary is ridiculously high. Robert Downey Jr. was initially only paid $500,000 for the original Iron Man. After the film’s release, though, we all came to associate Downey Jr. with Tony Stark and couldn’t accept any other actor in the role. Because of this, he went from making half a million dollars to making $10 million for Iron Man 2 and $50 million for Iron Man 3. Downey Jr. was also notably the highest paid actor of 2015, taking in $80 million for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

Since Robert Downey Jr. has proven so reliable as Iron Man, it makes sense that the studio would write him a big paycheck. There are several drawbacks to this, however, especially when it comes to a movie’s overall budget. Besides taking away from a film’s production costs, one actor’s high salary can hurt the rest of the talent involved. For Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mark Ruffalo made roughly $3 million, Chris Hemsworth made roughly $5 million, Jeremy Renner made roughly $5 million, Chris Evans made roughly $7 million, and Scarlett Johanson made roughly $20 million. Even with all their salaries combined, nothing can compare to Downey Jr.’s net worth.

On one hand, Robert Downey Jr. is worth every penny. On the other hand, paying an actor so much money to keep doing the same thing can eventually backfire. The longer an actor plays a certain character, the more money they’re going to demand. They’re also bound to become too comfortable in the role, however, and eventually just become predictable. The more predictable a performance is, the less interested an audience will be. Thus, they’ll get bored and demand something different.

Remember how much fun Johnny Depp was as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean? With each passing sequel, however, it became clear that Depp was just going through the motions as this character. By the time we got On Stranger Tides, a lot of people were officially sick of Captain Jack’s tired routine. Yet, Depp was still paid a whopping $55,500,000 to reprise his most iconic part. Depp could have challenged himself by taking on a new role for less money. When a studio pays an actor more to do less, however, they’re obviously just going to take the easy payday.

You’d think that the more money an actor is offered, they harder they’d try. In most cases, though, it seems to be the other way around. Although many of us knew Matthew McConaughey could act, he starred in the most effortless movies for the longest time. After all, why should he even try when a studio will offer him $8 million to do his usual thing in Sahara? Yet, McConaugh eventually realized he’d overstay his welcome if he kept blindly taking on bad movies for lots of cash. So instead of accepting $15 million to star in a Magnum P.I. movie, he decided to do Dallas Buyers Club for under $200,000 plus backend. He made less money, but was well compensated in Oscar gold for that performance.

Some of the best performances of the last few decades came from actors that made next to nothing. Look at a character actress like Patricia Arquette, who was paid hardly anything for her Oscar-winning performance in Boyhood. As a matter of fact, Arquette claims that she lost money given all the babysitters and dogwalkers she had to hire. Nevertheless, she kept making the movie for 12 years because she believed in it. It just goes to show that when a movie star is paid less money, that’s typically a sign that they were passionate about the project and the movie will be good.

This can also apply to actors that take paycuts for major blockbusters. Tom Cruise agreed to star in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol for $12,500,000, which is significantly less than what he was offered for the previous M:I movies. Regardless, Ghost Protocol ended up being one of the highest-grossing and most critically acclaimed films of Cruise’s career. Since Cruise was entitled to a portion of the grosses, he made a huge return on his investment. Cruise took a gamble, but he was rewarded in the end because the filmmakers made a quality action picture that tried new things with an aging franchise.

For every actor that’s willing to take a risk or a paycut for the sake of great art, though, there are a dozen others that will just keep accepting easy money. At the root of this problem are the studios, paying actors countless millions to not even try in movies that should have never been green-lit. In a perfect world, studios would put all of their money into quality movies and actors would only take on roles they really believe in. Since Hollywood abides by the almighty dollar, though, studios are habitually only attracted to what appears marketable while big name actors are attracted to the quickest paycheck.

When all is said and done, nobody wins from this. The studio loses countless millions on a project hardly anyone went to see and the people who did see it all want their money back. Sure, the stars walk away with the funds needed to go on a six month vacation. Once audiences catch onto an actor’s scam, however, they’ll stop going to see their movies. Once an actor loses credibility, the studio suddenly realizes that they aren’t worth the money.

The first step towards fixing this vicious cycle is for studios to stop relying so much on star power. What’s just as crucial, though, is for actors to take on projects they have faith in rather than accepting safe roles that offer the biggest salary. Actors need to learn how to say no every once and a while, even if it means rejecting $15 million. They may make less upfront sometimes, but we’ll all be richer for it in the long run.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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