In the sports world last week, everyone was talking about Prince Fielder, the Incredible Hulk-sized free-agent first baseman who signed a nine-year, $214-million contract with the Detroit Tigers. The deal, the fourth richest in baseball history, is still being noisily debated on baseball blogs and sports talk shows along with an even bigger contract that Albert Pujols signed last month with the Los Angeles Angels.
But the signings put a wholly different question in my head. Why do we live in a time when sports salaries are such a hot topic, but hardly anyone cares anymore what movie stars make? The fact is that sports is the new show business, and the interest (or lack thereof) in salaries is one reflection of that.
When “Underworld Awakening” opened earlier this month, the box-office stories were full of info about its budget — $70 million — and the percentage of moviegoers who saw it in 3-D — 59% — but no one bothered to mention how much Kate Beckinsale was paid to star in the film. Even the salaries of the most mega-wattage stars don’t come under that kind of scrutiny anymore. When “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was released, virtually every story mentioned the film’s budget, but not the fact that Robert Downey Jr. was paid a $15-million upfront salary.
This is a sea change from the go-go days in the mid-1990s, when movie star salaries were a front-burner concern. When then-Columbia Pictures chief Mark Canton paid Jim Carrey an unprecedented $20 million to play the lead in the dark comedy “The Cable Guy,” it was headline-grabbing news, especially because rival studio chiefs were apoplectic, seeing the salary hike as a sign of approaching apocalypse.
In hindsight, the doomsday talk was a tad melodramatic, even though Columbia took a bath on “Cable Guy,” despite Carrey’s presence on the marquee. It took studios at least a full decade to realize that movie stars were, by and large, a lousy bet.
Some in Hollywood see the lack of curiosity in movie star salaries as a sign of the star’s fading relevance in our culture. One studio chief speculated that we live in an era where moviegoers are more interested in characters than the people who play them. “We used to build movies around the stars,” one studio head explained. “But now we develop characters and superheroes — and then figure out which actor best fits the mold.”
If you look at the upcoming aspiring blockbusters, they are largely movie-star-free extravaganzas. With the exception of “Men in Black 3,” which has Will Smith front and center, the films are driven by concept and character, whether it’s Disney’s “John Carter,” Universal’s “Battleship,” Warners’ “The Dark Knight Rises,” Fox’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” or Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
With stars no longer at the nexus of the deal-making decisions, their salaries have lost a lot of news-worthy luster. In fact, if there is any one key reason why baseball signings are making news while movie star salary stories have dropped off the charts it’s that baseball salaries are skyrocketing while Hollywood salaries are in decline.
In sports, business is booming because the biggest value in today’s media world is live sports entertainment. The NFL just concluded a new round of billion-dollar TV deals, which in turn will generate higher salaries for football stars. The same goes for the NBA and MLB.
When Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers in 2004, he paid $430 million. Today, with the team being auctioned off to the highest bidder, insiders say the new owner could easily pay $1.5 billion for the team. The Dodgers are worth it because the new owner will reap a bonanza from a rich new TV deal. The TV money is fueling all the salary inflation. The Angels were able to sign a 10-year, $240-million deal with Pujols in December because the team signed a lucrative new TV deal with Fox.
The parallels between the two businesses are striking. Knowing they had tons of cash pouring in from their new TV deal, the Angels used it to buy the biggest star in the business. The same thing happened in the 1990s and early 2000s when the studios, flush with cash from home video and DVD revenues, used the money to chase after big-name talent, prompting a series of bidding wars. Now that star salaries are in decline, the media has turned its attention elsewhere. When it comes to sexy business stories, a XXXL-sized ballplayer getting $214 million has a lot more heat than the news that Tom Cruise, who made $70 million for “MI3,” is getting less than a fifth of that for “MI4.”
When stars make less money, the media’s sources also dry up. CAA was famous for leaking its star salary numbers in the ’90s, and every dazzling new salary breakthrough sent a telling message to stars signed to a rival agency — why isn’t your agent raking in all that moolah for you? When salaries are in decline, as they are now, you rarely see the likes of Kevin Huvane or Ari Emanuel feeding any information to the press, as today’s salary news only offers another instance of the scaling down of A-list actors’ earning power.
Today’s Hollywood is a buttoned-down place, a tiny cog in the showbiz sector of most media conglomerates. It’s the sports team owners who are like the studio moguls of yesteryear — fierce competitors with a burning desire to win. It may be a huge gamble to spend $200 million on a pudgy first baseman. But if it takes the team to the World Series, it’s a wager worth making, one with a lot more sizzle than the safe bets in today’s risk-averse Hollywood.
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Photo: Prince Fielder, who signed a $214-million contract with the Detroit Tigers last week, celebrating after hitting a double against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field last September. Credit: Benny Sieu/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT