After ‘Pluto,’ a return to Earth

With a trio of misses this year, it's time for stars like Eddie Murphy to leave the salary stratosphere and get a grounding in the new economic reality

Memo to: Eddie Murphy

From: Peter Bart

Have you noticed, Eddie, that the quickest way to empty a room in this town is to start talking about failure? Everyone likes to crow about their hits. No one likes to think back on their turkeys.

The people at Disney are so eager to forget “Treasure Planet,” their latest $140 million animation bomb, that they’ve already calculated a pre-tax $74 million writedown — and the ultimate loss may be even bigger. The movie has barely hit the theaters and already it’s history.

I’m addressing this to you, Eddie, since you’ve had to deal with some fiscal and emotional writedowns this year. I’m talking about “I Spy,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” and “Showtime,” representing perhaps $250 million in negative cost. That’s not just a writedown; it’s a meltdown.

Now I don’t mean to pick on you, Eddie. I’ll freely acknowledge that you’ve had many hits in your time, ranging from “Beverly Hills Cop” to “The Nutty Professor” to “Dr. Dolittle.”

But when actors hit a winning streak, Eddie, their price vaults upward. Yours escalated to $20 million against 20% of the gross. But what happens in the case of a losing streak?

A producer says he offered you a movie the other day and was told in no uncertain terms: Eddie’s deal is set in stone.

This is where things get dicey, Eddie. Given the soaring cost of production and marketing, shouldn’t stars also say, “I gave at the office?”

After all, the writedowns this year have entered the realm of the surreal. “Pluto Nash” surely represented a loss north of $50 million to Warner Bros.

The same applies to “The Truth About Charlie” at Universal, which you had nothing to do with. That debacle should put a dent in the remake business.

Most of the real losers of 2002 were action films or thrillers: Consider “Rollerball,” “Windtalkers” and “Hart’s War.” Or “Collateral Damage,” “Femme Fatale” and “Dragonfly.” These films didn’t win favor even with overseas audiences, which once indiscriminately consumed genre fare.

But your losers were comedies, Eddie — or at least they strived for laughs. Comedies have been a safe haven for risk-averse studio chiefs lately. “Jackass” didn’t earn plaudits from critics, but it’s already passed the $60 million mark in the U.S. “Mr. Deeds” won’t win any Oscar nominations, but it’s edging toward $200 million worldwide.

No guarantees

The lesson, I suppose, is that there are no safe havens anymore.

The Disney label on an animated film used to guarantee a solid opening. “Treasure Planet” reminds us that those days are gone forever. Indeed, Disney would seem to be back where it was in 1984 when Michael Eisner and Frank Wells staged their coup d’etat. Every movie has to stand on its own.

You know something about that genre, Eddie. Your performance in “Shrek” helped that project become a megahit, thus making you a lot of money and Jeffrey Katzenberg a very happy man.

Clearly your future won’t be limited to animation, Eddie. You relish physical comedy. You enjoy flashing that great smile.

But maybe it’s time to give producers a few smiles, too. Show the community that at least one star is willing to step forward and proclaim that actor salaries are like the stock market — they can go down as well as up.

It would be a real shock to the system, Eddie. And the system has become a little battered.

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