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Million-dollar roles go to actors, not scripters

A MILLION DOLLARS ain’t what it used to be. That is, unless you’re an artiste who works for scale or one of those below-the-line heroes so movingly acknowledged this year at the Oscars.

If you read the trades, not a week goes by without some announcement of a $ 1 million script sale or a tyro acting talent who’s crashed through to seven-figure land. In reality, actors stand a much greater chance than writers of actually cashing that big check.

Mark Gottsburger (not his real name) is a screenwriter with a typical deal. He graduates from USC, finds an agent and is now experiencing the thrill of a million-dollar “sale” for his first feature script. In truth, his script got optioned for $ 50,000 and he was contracted to do a set of rewrites for $ 150, 000. Of course, none of this money is additional — it’s all against that really big figure emblazoned in the trades. Also keep in mind that his film still hasn’t been bought outright, so let’s not even talk greenlight.

As this particular scenario unfolds, the folks at thestudio decide to go ahead, which guarantees Gottsburger will see half of the golden number. To cross the finish line with all the loot, he has to pray that no other scribe is brought in to doctor his pearly prose — and share in the screen credit.

The worst case for this million-dollar deal would have seen Gottsburger sell the option, do the rewrites and walk away with $ 200,000. Not bad, but not quite the figure his agent is trying to palm off for his hot new client.

By contrast, actors who take deferments get a much better deal. Daily Variety recently wrote about Jason James Richter, the tyke who’s going to star in the “Free Willy” sequel, which should net him a lot of fish. His deal actually guarantees him about three-quarters of a million just for signing. Now, asthe film is a valuable franchise and set to film next month, there’s a good chance he’ll see a bit more of the money once the picture starts. The quality of the sequel and its public response will determine whether he gets the last pay increment. Nothing’s a certainty, although it doesn’t hurt that the original is on its way to a worldwide theatrical gross of more than $ 150 million.

“One thing you have to remember is that there’s a psychological component to million-dollar deals,” notes one Burbank exec. “Talent loves to say they got seven figures and management will negotiate right down to $ 999,999.99 just to give the appearance of restraint.”

DID YOU SAY A MILLION RUBLES? At the DGA luncheon for the directors of the foreign-language nominees at Oscar time, a query arose about international auteur salaries. Director Paul Mazursky guessed that most in the Hollywood contingent were pulling down more per picture than the combined fees for the five Oscar contenders.

He was right.

Chen Kaige, who made “Farewell My Concubine,” figured he was paid about the equivalent of $ 150,000. Fernando Trueba received roughly $ 200,000 for the Spanish pic “Belle Epoque.” However, that included his fee for scripting. Both “The Scent of Green Papaya’s” Tran Ahn Hung and Ang Lee weighed in for about $ 40,000 and Welshman Paul Taylor cried poor with a wage of $ 25,000 for his “Hedd Wyn.”

TOO LOOSE FOR COMFORT. Before Schindler, the Academy Awards had bestowed glory on another German Oskar. It was the screen adaptation of Gunter Grass’s novel “The Tin Drum,” which was named best foreign-language film at the 1980 event.

The allegoric panorama of 20th-century Germany was told through the eyes of a boy named Oskar who, as a result of an accident, remained the size of a child. Director Volker Schloendorff found his extraordinary man-child in David Bennent, the 12-year-old son of actor parents. Bennent did a few films after “Drum” and disappeared from public view.

Well, he’s back and Volker’s got him. Bennent is set for the title role in Schloendorff’s “Lautrec,”which will film in Germany and France in the fall. Cinephiles will recall that the last time the 19th-century painter and immortalizer of the Folies Bergere hit the screen, it was John Huston at the helm in the 1953 “Moulin Rouge” with Jose Ferrer. Also famous is the mind-numbing pain the actor experienced wearing a body harness to give the illusion of dwarfishness.

CASTING ASPERSIONS: No more Mr. Nice Guy for Nicolas Cage. His recent stints as straight-laced guys just had to come to an end. He’s just signed to play the heavy in director Barbet Schroeder’s remake of “Kiss of Death” in the part that made Richard Widmark a star — he pushes a little old lady in a wheelchair down several flights of stairs … and Billy Baldwin will play the real arsonist that John Leguizamo pretends to be in order to get the attention of Sadie Frost in director Joshua Brand’s screen debut “A Pyromaniac’s Love Story.” Erika Eleniak plays Baldwin’s romantic interest.

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