Congratulations on your Oscar (but don't expect to rake in the cash)

By Guy Adams

At the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, where an entire street is now covered in red carpet and life-sized gold statues, and Oscar hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are rehearsing an awards show that could well be dominated by the most lucrative film ever made, you could be forgiven for wondering what on Earth has become of the recession.

Stadium-style seating and a plastic roof now surround the extravagant walkway up which 3,300 of the world's richest and most famous people will gain access to an event which could have sold out many times over, despite tickets which, at face value, range from US$1,200 to $1,500.

The Oscar party circuit, so scaled back in 2009 that the 81st Academy Awards were dubbed the "Austerity Oscars", is back to something like full swing. At least 50 celebrity events are scheduled, and Hollywood's hot new venue is an outpost of the boom-time watering hole, Soho House.

In homage, meanwhile, to the fact that 2009 saw cinema box-office receipts break all previous records domestically, the film industry's fattest cats are rediscovering their appetite for conspicuous consumption. Yesterday's Variety carried 25 pages of advertisements (filling almost as much space as editorial), mostly for luxury goods and property.

Yet for all their absurdly expensive frocks and twinkling items of jewellery, many of the gilded elite due to toddle up that red carpet tomorrow afternoon are missing out on what you might call their traditional share of the industry's spoils.

A-list stars, who in years gone by could expect to bank anything from US$20-$30m a film, are still waiting for salaries to return to anything like historic levels. With fewer studio films being made, and a troubled independent film sector, the trend has even hit the men and woman who will deliver tomorrow's tearful acceptance speeches.

Take, for example, the ten films short-listed for Best Picture, tomorrow's big prize. All of them feature lead actors who, by the admittedly-gargantuan standards of their profession, received relatively modest up-front salaries. Sandra Bullock, the leading contender for Best Actress, halved her usual $10m asking price to star in The Blind Side. George Clooney was paid around $2m, as opposed to the $20m he has earned in the past, to star in Up In The Air. Brad Pitt received closer to $10m than his usual $20m for Inglourious Basterds.

Films like The Hurt Locker, An Education, and District Nine were made on small budgets. Even the shortlist's major "tent-pole" blockbuster, Avatar, which has generated $2.5bn at the box office, saw James Cameron invest his $300m budget in special effects, rather than acting talent. Stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana banked hundreds of thousands, rather than millions of dollars.

To the concern of the Hollywood elite, the era of vast upfront payments is now over, perhaps for good. Instead, studios are citing collapsing DVD sales, and a trend away from star "vehicles," as a reason to restructure deals.

Many major stars are now getting "CB zero" or "cash-break zero" deals. It means they get tiny upfront deals, and a share in the profits only after the studio has recouped its investment.

Sometimes, it works to an actor's advantage; Bullock and Clooney, whose nominated films made $250m and $150m respectively, are now considerably richer. But it doesn't always end up that way. The Hurt Locker only returned around $12m at the box office, which represents bad news for its star, Jeremy Renner, who is up for Best Actor.

Tight market conditions have also caused the demise of a time-honoured Oscar tradition. In days gone by, the talent agents of victorious actors and actresses would spend the week after the Academy Awards overseeing bidding wars between would-be-employers that would set both them, and their clients, up for life. Now they are haggling over margins.

Some would-be Oscar winners have compensated for declining pay-cheques by selling out. Morgan Freeman may be nominated for Best Actor for Invictus, but of late, America has seen him in a ubiquitous series of Visa advertisements, which aired during the Winter Olympics. Others are concentrating on television dramas. In years gone by, TV was a medium that highbrow actors abandoned the moment they became film stars. Nowadays, that artistic snobbery has more or less vanished.

Dustin Hoffman signed up to this trend on Tuesday, committing to his first extended TV stint since the 1960s alongside Nick Nolte in the Michael Mann horseracing drama Luck, which will air on HBO.He will join an array of established stars now earning a crust (and plaudits) on the small screen, including Glenn Close, who stars in Damages, Chloe Sevigny in Big Love, and Charlie Sheen, who before his rehab, earned one of the television industry's biggest salaries for Two and a Half Men.

John Lithgow was successfully tempted to star in the last series of Dexter, while the late Patrick Swayze spent the final months of his life making last year's cop drama The Beast. Dennis Hopper's career swansong, meanwhile, is likely to be the cable series Crash.

"The reason you're seeing these people on television is that first and foremost, it's a pay-check," says Mychal Wilson, an entertainment industry lawyer, producer, and film financier. "In film traditional business models have dissipated. And while there's a lot of instability in that market place, TV remains a stable stream of revenue." But while some actors might lament it as a form of dumbing-down, their agents argue that it represents the direct opposite.

"A lot of the most interesting and challenging material out there at the moment is actually being made for TV," says Bob Gersh, co-president of the Gersh Agency, one of Hollywood's best-regarded talent houses.

"People are getting much acclaim for TV roles. They find it an interesting challenge, and also different. And of course, in TV you can still get a nice wage up front."

Gersh, whose agency represents the likes of David Schwimmer and Twilight star Kristen Stewart, says he now regards helping clients "cross over" from film into TV and theatre, and back again, as one of his most important duties.

Crucially, marketing men now regard TV as a better way to maintain a fashionable fan-base than film, particularly among younger demographics.

"A TV network can come up with a project far closer to a movie star's interests, creatively, and can still find an audience that will allow it to make a profit," says Darren Campo, a TV executive and novelist.

"From an actor's point of view, it doesn't need such an enormous time commitment, and it doesn't need such a large audience to make money." These days, that's a win-win. Just don't go telling it to the film purists at tomorrow's big event.

- INDEPENDENT

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