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Los Angeles, California

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I Walk the Line

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I have been having an on-going argument with an old friend who’s a film producer. He’s developing a project and feels he can clear a major hurdle if he attaches a particular movie star who just happens to be among the chosen that commands $20 million. The studio involved wants him to offer the actor $15 million and perks and he’s telling the execs he’d like to put a deal on the table for $25 million plus involve a director that’s worked with the actor and toss in a healthy backend for both of them.
Now, to a point I side with the studio. My basic feeling is that no one deserves that level of compensation unless there’s a true element of risk involved. The whole idea of giving much sought after marquee names a percentage of the box office began with the condition they would either lower or eliminate their asking price. It was a trade off; a roll of the dice in which the performer was betting his slice would be a bigger reward than a set fee. It seemed like an equitable arrangement until the majors redefined what constituted profit.
As with many disagreements, this surface tension masks both rippling considerations and more profound dilemmas. To begin with, this film isn’t some razzle dazzler with eye-popping visual effects and pyrotechnical wonders. It’s a character comedy, and in contemporary Hollywood studios are loathe to spend more than $65-70 million on that type of film. The producer is ready to commit $35 million to a star and director and, if he’s lucky, may only have to pony up an additional $8 million for the second role and for writers and clearances. I imagine he’s also budgeted at least $5 million for his and others producing salaries. So, roughly 65 to 70 percent of the budget will be consumed before a single frame of film has been exposed.
At this point I’d like to mention that this producer was the first I ever heard complain about the cockeyed manner in which studios determine production schedules. He astutely noted that working backwards from a release date was an absurd method in determining the start of filming and every other step along the way to commercial release. In essence, any misstep going forward shaves off precious days in at the back for editing, sound mixing, ADR and color timing. Heaven forbid that reshoots should be required following preview screenings because nothing in the process will derail a major release from debuting on the studio anointed date. While this may sound like hyperbole, the only major releases that come to mind that have moved their openings (more than a couple of weeks) in recent time are Gangs of New York and Titanic.
Similarly, though $20 million may be an ample budget for the below-the-line costs of a character comedy, it likely is not because, like the production schedule, it’s being determined primarily by process of elimination. Logic dictates that the creative keys read a script, talk to the director and producer, assess the needs of the production and submit a budget. However, as things presently stand, many departments are simply assigned a budget and told to make it work. A powerful creative can make a case for more money but if he receives a concession, it means some other department will be cut back.
While I’m not quite ready to view the overall situation as a dark conspiracy, it almost inevitably pits one group against another when it’s crucial that they work in unison. Who can afford internecine plots by the art department to squirrel away money that’s being taken up by the camera crew or will be needed later when special effects are added to enhance the picture.
Outright malevolence on the part of creatives or technicals would be unthinkable, but in an environment where the rewards create a division of labor that amounts to “haves” and “have nots” the end result can be equally destructive, if unintended. Studio accounting that created the division between the so-called above and below-the-liners began simply to distinguish between fixed and negotiated costs. Even though the talent pool was largely under contract, Clark Gable had a better pay check than Van Johnson or Walter Pidgeon and writers such as Sidney Howard had set salaries whether they wrote originals or adapted costly adaptations such as Gone With the Wind.
Regrettably, what was no more than a line in the sand has evolved into a chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon. Actors, directors and writers have an obvious edge not simply because they have higher public profiles but as a result of representation that has ramped up the stakes. The consequence is that the under-represented crafts and technical teams are suffering. They are being squeezed to do more for less and while their work may be pristine, even inspired on screen, the physical and psychological toll is often soul withering.

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