In the 1990s, Jim Carrey was an unstoppable force.
After a stint on “In Living Color,” where he created a rococo list of characters like Fire Marshall Bill and Vera De Milo, the rubber-faced comic seamlessly made the transition to the big screen. Despite a critical drubbing, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” became a sleeper hit in the spring of 1994, grossing more than $100 million on a $15 million budget. Carrey followed that up with blockbusters like “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Batman Forever,” assuming the role of the Riddler, a part once earmarked for Robin Williams. As fans flocked to see his latest movies, Carrey’s salary ballooned. When he first played Ace Ventura, Carrey pulled in $450,000, but by the time he was spiking Jeff Daniels’s coffee with ex-lax in “Dumb and Dumber,” the comic earned a cool $7 million for his efforts.
So it made sense that when it came to compensation, Carrey would soon be among the top ranks of A-listers, right up there with Arnold and Harrison and Sly. But no one was predicting the financial windfall Carrey was about to enjoy when he signed on to play a psychotic cable installer in the black comedy “The Cable Guy.” The actor received an astounding $20 million from Columbia Pictures, as well as a 15% backend (meaning his cut of the box office profits). “The Cable Guy” was released 25 years ago this Monday, and is now primarily appreciated as a minor cult classic, if it is remembered at all, but the impact of Carrey’s financial bonanza can still be felt today.
For years, Hollywood executives had been able to hold the line for actor deals at $15 million, but cracks were starting to form in their united front. Just before Carrey became the first member of the $20 million club, Bruce Willis received $16.5 million for “Last Man Standing,” Arnold Schwarzenegger nabbed north of $17 million for “Eraser,” and Sylvester Stallone picked up $17.5 million for “Daylight.” But this was something else entirely, a move so seismic that as Variety wrote, it sent “heads spinning and tongues wagging.” The June 19, 1995 story that accompanied the news of the comic’s windfall carried with it a headline that summed up the sense of shock overtaking the industry’s higher-ups, “H’wood Finds $20 Million Tab for Carrey Plain Scary.”
The news also put Mark Canton, who was in charge of Columbia at the time, on the defensive. “I’m not saying we didn’t stretch things, but I promise others were headed in this direction, and I don’t think it’s a trend because there aren’t many stars establishing themselves in the foreign market the way he has,” Canton told Variety.
Others weren’t so sure that Carrey’s deal wouldn’t unleash a new wave of mega-pacts.
“It seems a mild panic has set in at the talent agencies because they don’t think they’re going to get (those salaries) for their clients,” an unnamed producer told the trade.
Mike Fleming Jr., the Variety deals reporter who wrote about the news that Carrey would earn $20 million, says “The Cable Guy” payday set off a mad scramble among other top stars.
“Every major top-of-the-line movie star got a $5 million raise, that’s what happened,” Fleming, who now serves as co-editor-in-chief of Deadline, remembers. “There was a lot of grumbling among Mark Canton’s peers. They’d set a ceiling and Jim blew past it.”
In the short term, Carrey’s salary became something of an albatross. It seemed to find its way into any article or profile of the actor. Even an Entertainment Weekly cover tied to the release of 1995’s “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” referenced the payday — the story, which was, mind you, about another movie entirely, featured an image of grinning Carrey with the headline, “You’d Be Smiling Too If You Just Got Paid $20 Million.”
And when the movie finally opened on June 14, 1996, critics focused as much on Carrey’s deal as they did on the film itself. That might have been a good thing, because the resulting movie, an awkward hybrid of broad comedy and slasher movie tropes, was way too dark to be commercially viable. Rather than laud Carrey for taking a risk, however, many reviewers penned the blame for the picture’s missteps on the actor and his new tax bracket.
“To judge from the evidence on the screen, Sony Pictures, after paying Mr. Carrey a stupefying fee, had no budget left for making the picture,” sniffed the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern.
“The erstwhile butt ventriloquist, who took home $20 million for his efforts, is cooking all right, but not with gas,” the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote.
Meanwhile the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prescient, in a review that seemed to predict “The Cable Guy’s” disappointing box office returns. “Note to the producers: There’s an old showbiz saying that ‘satire is what closes on Saturday night,'” he wrote. “To which could be added another: ‘Black comedy is not what you pay someone $20 million to do.'”
Ebert was right. “The Cable Guy” opened to a respectable $20 million and then sank like a stone, weighed down by toxic word of mouth. Its $102.8 million global haul on a $47 million budget meant it probably lost money when print and advertising costs are taken into account, or barely broke even when home entertainment revenue factored into the final equation. But Carrey bounced back. In 1997, he scored a blockbuster hit with “Liar Liar,” justifying the $20 million he made for that picture, and enjoyed a streak of successes such as “The Truman Show,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Bruce Almighty,” before his star began to fade in the later aughts.
What’s interesting, however, is that after Carrey broke the salary barrier, the new cap remained more or less in place for more than two decades, somehow resistant to inflationary forces. Even today, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington and Will Smith still ask for, and receive, $20 million. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gets slightly more, but some of that compensation is for producing movies and agreeing to hawk them on his social media channels. Of course, those fees can get substantially higher when backend deals are taken into account: Just ask Robert Downey Jr. about his “Avengers” paydays.
The reasons that star salaries have been unable to resist this gravitational pull are complicated. For one thing, the rise of superhero films has made movie stars, at least of the put-butts-in-seats variety, something of an endangered species. People go to movies to see Captain America or Thor save the world, not to check out whichever blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hollywood Chris is wearing the Spandex this go-round.
And these movies are expensive to make, primarily because they rely on special effects. For “The Cable Guy,” Carrey’s pliable face was all the CGI a producer needed, thus studios could justify giving half a film’s budget to the star.
Then there’s the rise of streaming services like Netflix, which have scrambled the way actors are compensated and demonstrate that, while $20 million is a headline-grabbing figure, the true riches are to be found in backend deals. Thus, Will Smith earns both his $20 million salary and millions more in backend riches when he stars in Netflix’s “Bright,” or agrees to let Warner Bros. debut “King Richard” in theaters at the same time it bows on HBO Max. If movie stars are going to become streaming stars, the message goes, they need to be rewarded handsomely for their efforts and paid out as though their films weren’t just hits, but blockbuster smashes.
In the 1990s, star salaries were a status symbol, with agents and managers gleefully leaking the details of their clients’ paydays. It wasn’t all that different from the way that sports stars’ salaries are reported by the media, with fans learning everything about LeBron James’ new pact or Tom Brady’s contract. In 21st century Hollywood, things are different. Perhaps it’s because the film studios have grown so big, merging or being swallowed up by telecoms and tech giants, that they have become less transparent in how they share news. Leo’s next paycheck is a lot less likely to warrant coverage on the nightly news as Carrey’s “Cable Guy” deal did in its day.
“I do find it harder to be specific about someone’s big paycheck on a movie than it was back in the day,” says Fleming. “The business is a little more buttoned up and stars don’t want to have their laundry out there in the same way.”