The Simpsons cast is playing hardball in its salary battle with Fox, but actors in big film franchises have to tread carefully when getting involved in the same standoffs.
I saw a poster in London this week advertising the straight-to-DVD release of the new Bruce Willis film Setup, a heist thriller also starring 50 Cent and Ryan Phillippe which was also released straight to DVD in the US on Sept 20.
The poster confirmed how the value of movie stars is not what it used to be vis a vis cost, especially now that studios prefer to cast relative unknowns in their franchises like Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Shia LaBeouf (Transformers), diverting the lion’s share of the budget into special effects and production value.
Unfortunately the problem with a franchise is that, if it hits, it creates stars who become key elements in future episodes and can start demanding salaries along Bruce Willis lines. Michael Gambon was inserted seamlessly as Dumbledore in Potter film #3 after the death of Richard Harris, but you couldn’t have switched out one of the three child leads with such relative ease. Likewise Megan Fox was dropped from Transformers 3, and few people batted an eyelid, but that would not have been the case if LaBeouf had been replaced.
This week, the LA TV industry was abuzz with the latest battle between talent and executives over salaries. The brilliant voice cast of The Simpsons had been given a deadline of Friday by 20th Century Fox Television to decide whether they would accept a paycut from about $8m each per season to just over half that. If they refuse, Fox will not go ahead with a 24th season.
While The Simpsons is of course a staple of Fox’s schedule and still considered one of the best shows on US television, its ratings have declined over the years and these costs – for actors like Dan Castallaneta, Julie Kavner, Harry Shearer and Nancy Cartwright – amount to tens of millions of dollars a season. Then again The Simpsons without any of those voice stars would be severely compromised.
It’s a conundrum, and of course one which movie studios face on a regular basis. When Vin Diesel didn’t commit to a first Fast And The Furious sequel, Universal brought in Tyrese Gibson to join Paul Walker. The movie grossed $236m worldwide, and a third in the franchise Tokyo Drift, which had neither Walker nor Diesel in it, took just $158m. With those two stars restored, the fourth film grossed $363m and the fifth $616m. Studios have tried to keep franchises going without the costly lead star, but often the experiment doesn’t work as can be seen in the case of Home Alone 3 (Alex Linz stood in for Macauley Culkin), XXX: State Of The Union (Ice Cube took over from Vin Diesel again) or Son Of The Mask (Jamie Kennedy for Jim Carrey).
Of course, studios and networks would love to think that the concept is everything, and actors not key to its success. Look, for example, at the sky-high ratings that CBS is enjoying with Two And A Half Men in which Ashton Kutcher took over from Charlie Sheen.
And Universal is confidently planning to restart the Bourne series sans Matt Damon. Jeremy Renner is taking the lead in The Bourne Legacy, which is set for release on Aug 3 next summer.
But the risk of killing the property is often too great. Sony, for example, held out for deals with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones on Men In Black 3 and is still hoping that Bill Murray will step onto Ghostbusters 3.
From the actor’s point of view, it’s hard to know what terms to demand, especially these days when studios are trying to cut costs at all cost.
On the one hand, sometimes they have nothing to lose. The Simpsons voice actors, for example, have recorded 23 seasons and presumably don’t need to work again
On the other hand, younger actors have to protect their careers. Audiences will go and see Transformers starring Shia LaBeouf but they might not go and see another film because LaBeouf is in it. Likewise Daniel Radcliffe whose post-Potter career is by no means guaranteed.
Looking at the US box office this week, films starring Twilight’s Taylor Lautner, The Transporter’s Jason Statham and James Bond himself Daniel Craig have all bombed. Life outside a franchise, as Die Hard’s Willis will tell you, can be brutal.