Soaring star salaries induce labor pains

When Columbia Pictures dug deep into corporate parent Sony’s deep pockets this spring to pay Jim Carrey an unheard-of $20 million to headline “The Cable Guy,” Hollywood’s labor unions readied themselves for another punch to the gut.

Columbia TriStar chairman Mark Canton pegged the pic’s budget at about $40 million. Theoretically, Carrey’s golden payday left the remaining $20 million to be divided among additional cast, producers, rewriters, production costs and, finally, crew members. One Col insider speculated that less than $15 million of that would be left for actual production costs and below-the-line staff salaries.

Not that “The Cable Guy” couldn’t be installed at that price. But the unions immediately feared that any Columbia cost-cutting would fall squarely on their shoulders.

More broadly, the question persists: Are skyrocketing salaries for lead actors putting the pinch on below-the-line production costs and, in turn, making it tougher on Hollywood’s rank-and-file workers?

“As usual, we’re the ones that will have to pay for something like that,” said one labor official. “That picture only costs about $40 million. It will probably be understaffed and it will be a constant fight over crew issues. Over the long haul and at contract time, we’ll pay.”

The picture starts shooting in December and the actual budget isn’t done yet, according to Columbia. So no one quite knows whether the unions have a legitimate gripe.

Producers and unions agree on one thing: Such awe-inspiring salaries are the fundamental reason the production cost of the average film produced by Motion Picture Assn. of America-member studios has more than doubled in the past decade – from $16.8 million in 1985 to $34.3 million in 1994.

The Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees can do little to combat such spiraling costs. The union has virtually no real statistics about their effect on workers. But crew members tell tales of barely keeping up with inflation. Movies may be pricier than they ever were, but experienced crew members say life has gotten steadily worse over the last 10 years.

“In terms of what it costs just to get along, definitely worse,” says one Electricians Local 728 member. “In the last 10 years, I have certainly perfected my craft and gone on to working at a much higher capacity. But aside from that, if you look at the same money for the same service, basic wage hasn’t kept up with that.”

It has been downright impossible for others. “A lot of people are a month away from the street, losing their mortgages,” says a gaffer. “If a producer does some lockout thing to see how long (the unions) can hold out, they’ll all lose their homes.”

When their personal budgets are stretched, union members often take non-union jobs just to keep money coming in. That can translate to as little as $100 or $150 a day for highly experienced labor.

Statistics don’t lie

U.S. Dept. of Labor inflation figures bear out movie crew laments. From 1985 to 1995, the Consumer Price Index, both in Los Angeles and nationwide, rose 42%. IATSE contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have kept pace with wages, but still end up garnering less cash for crew members.

“Even with those raises, we’re still falling behind inflation,” says a cameraman in Local 659.

A typical IA contract that has inched up over the last 10 years is for makeup and hairstylists’ Local 706. Standard rates for a department head on a feature pic went from $24.19 an hour in 1986 to $34.29 an hour in 1995 – a 42% increase. But as TV telepics started fleeing Hollywood for non-union pastures, the IA was forced to cut the telepic rate to $21.88 an hour, to 1980 prices.

“They keep blaming the unions,” says Local 706 business agent Alan Fama. “The more we give back, the worse it gets.”

One management exec argues that the small price hikes for the IA are consistent with contracts for the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. The exec says union wages are fine. “They’re making much, much more, ” he says.

The IA is working to develop a low-budget feature agreement to match, but that, too, will likely involve major cuts to accommodate indie low-budget filmmakers. So, says one crafts worker, crews will be forced to reconsider doing non-union jobs.

As for studio pictures, budgets continue to skew because of high-priced talent. Besides Carrey’s “Cable” cash coup (never seen before for a romantic comedy), Mel Gibson recently inked for $20 million-plus for Touchstone’s “Ransom” and Sylvester Stallone nabbed a $60 million, three-picture deal with Universal. Whoopi Goldberg, Demi Moore and Julia Roberts are all earning $10 million or more per picture. And even 18-year-old Alicia Silverstone, based on the success of one movie, “Clueless,” has inked a three-year, $10 million, two-pic deal at Columbia.

Some releases have benefited from big-ticket thesps with bargain-basement production costs. Last year, New Line Cinema spent $7 million for Carrey’s antics in “Dumb and Dumber,” which carried a modest budget of $19 million. Some critics said the production values suffered. But New Line guffawed all the way to Citibank as the picture grossed more than $125 million domestically.

One industry management exec argues that other below-the-line factors drive up costs – such as more expensive computerized technology, ever-burgeoning action sequences that require extra union staffing and overscale payments that top directors of photography and editors are now demanding.

“MPAA numbers are clearly the average of the major studios,” the executive says. “Another 200 independent films a year bring that average way down. The majors tend to handle the bigger-budget movies and the ones that have more action, special effects and more stunts.”

Such notions leave the unions hopping mad.

Don’t blame us

“We actually cost less now than we did 10 years ago,” says one union local leader. “We do not contribute to any suggested inflationary aspects that the producers wish to lay at our feet. There have been concessions across the board, ongoing, as we attempt to make the workplace a cooperative venture. Any suggestion that labor is responsible for any spiraling costs is ridiculous.”

Producer Lynda Obst (“The Fisher King,” “Sleepless in Seattle”) observes a physical imbalance in Hollywood budgets. She told an American Film Institute seminar that a $24 million production budget is evenly split between above the line and below. When budgets start escalating above that figure, most of the dollars head north of the line.

Obst pointed out that it’s only the scale and size of the project that inflates costs below the line. “It’s rare that it’s salaries,” she said. “When you’re chasing to meet a release date, for example, that expands the crew.”

Another A-list producer puts it more bluntly: “Any idiot knows that salaries for crew haven’t gone up compared to stars. Salaries for scale actors haven’t gone up compared to stars. What the IA can haggle and SAG can haggle is not the same thing as Mike Ovitz.”

“People’s income depends on how much they work,” says David Streit, producer of “Species” and “River’s Edge.” “If you’ve got a gaffer who works non-union for a director of photography all the time, then he’s doing better than an IA guy who’s working half the time.”

“Species” was more of a reversal on the current trend. The $31 million pic had no major stars, meaning that less than a quarter of its budget went above the line. The rest paid for gooey special effects for the movie’s leading monster.

When a picture carries immense special effects or big action sequences, even unhappy union leaders admit that the amended bottom line is better for the workers.

Out of “Waterworld” and its $175 million budget, tens of millions of dollars went below the line and carried crew members for 166 days of work. “We were ecstatic,” says Ron Cunningham, business agent for Props Local 44.

James Cameron’s “True Lies” in 1994 had a $100 million-plus budget and gave the IA months of labor. But Cameron had a laundry list of demands that the IA couldn’t afford to turn down. Cameron’s Light-storm Entertainment is able to negotiate with the IA in a way that the studios aren’t always capable of. His picture, as expensive as it was, remained a negative pickup because his company has not signed a union contract, even though distribber 20th Century Fox has. So the IA had to bargain.

Cameron asked for adjustments on overtime, seventh-day distant location payments, traveling pay, holiday pay, overscale fees and a toolbag full of other requests. None of those elements amounted to much alone, but together the savings represented several million dollars for Cameron.

The IA could only say yes.

“Cameron got significant savings in each one of those things,” said an IA source. “The IA took a look at this and it was sensible. You can give Cameron almost anything. But whatever we gave up, they were certainly sensible to keep the work here. Anyone who worked on that thing went home in a very healthy manner.”

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