Jim Carrey became the first actor to get a $20m upfront fee for a movie with The Cable Guy – and it had ramifications for the film industry.
Before visual effects became a better global seller at the box office than human beings in 1990s, the way to buy yourself an opening weekend for a major movie was generally regarded as stumping up for a movie star. It mattered not if you have a rotten script, a bad director, or if things just didn’t work out. The 80s and particular the 90s were littered with movies that weren’t very good, yet went on to earn good money courtesy of having a star name attached.
As such, the price of a movie star – the closest thing a Hollywood boss could get to buying a guaranteed hit – started to rocket. Arnold Schwarzenegger led the way, famously taking a then-record $15m to headline Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But others weren’t far behind. $15m became the de facto price for a major star in your film, plus the usual add-ons of course.
Yet for a while, the top end of up-front Hollywood salaries seemed to stall. Some opted for less up front, and more on the back end, but the kind of deals that netted Jack Nicholson so much money for playing the Joker in 1989’s Batman were becoming rarer. Bluntly, the stars were getting richer, the studios often weren’t.
However, none of this made the movie business any less competitive, and when a hot new talent emerged on the scene, out came the chequebooks again. The revival of Sylvester Stallone’s career with particularly Cliffhanger but also Demolition Man in 1993 suddenly made him a hot commodity again. So much so that Universal was persuaded to raise the top tier upfront salary level to $17.5m when it signed him up for the disaster movie Daylight.
Warner Bros was believed to match that when it hired Schwarzenegger to star in Eraser. But at the start of the 1990s, nobody would have guesses that it would be a comedy star very few people had heard of then to shatter the $20m ceiling.
That man was Jim Carrey.
In early 1994, he burst onto the movie landscape with some impact, courtesy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The low budget film became a sleeper hit and a half, and eyebrows were instantly raised. The movie that really cemented his blast to star status though arrived just a few months later: The Mask.
The summer of 1994 offered mixed fortunes for movie studios. The Flintstones and Maverick did decent business, though not as much as had been hoped. City Slickers II and The Shadow disappointed. True Lies and Speed hit big. But the movie every studio wished they’d backed was The Mask.
The film – and it was New Line, in its pre-Warner Bros days, that rolled the dice – cost just $23m to make. It was headlined by a man who was barely heard of when he got the role. That man of course being Jim Carrey, whose salary was said to be less than $1m. The box office returns of $351.6m globally made stars of him and Cameron Diaz. Carrey then found himself Hollywood’s most in-demand actor.
His salary instantly shot up, even as Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s respective agents were trying to secure more cash for their respective clients. It helped that Carrey scored a third big hit in a year when Dumb And Dumber arrived at the end of 1994.
His asking price soared. He scored a better payday for 1995’s Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, with his price reportedly soaring to $10m. And reportedly another eight figures for superhero sequel Batman Forever. He was offered too $18m to star in a comedy called Thief Of Santa Monica for the Motion Picture Group, but turned that one down.
In the background of all of this came speculation as to which studio boss would stump up the first $20m star salary. And inevitably, it was likely to be the one having the toughest time. Mark Canton was then heading up Columbia Pictures, and whilst 1993 had given him a welcome surprise hit – In The Line Of Fire – the supposed surefire success of Last Action Hero had backfired.
1994, meanwhile, had seen the likes of Street Fighter, Wolf and The Next Karate Kid fail to catch on, whilst I’ll Do Anything was an expensive musical rejigged in post-production to a more conventional drama. It sank without trace.
Columbia needed a big box office hit, and Canton knew that was going to cost significant bucks. Against a backdrop of a disappointing 1995 slate – First Knight, Money Train and The Indian In The Cupboard again failing to ignite – an offer went to Carrey. Initially for $16m, and when he turned that down, the price went higher.
The further backdrop to this was that the studio had won a fierce bidding war for a script by Lou Holtz Jr called The Cable Guy. It was never envisaged as a movie star vehicle, but once the screenplay had been bought for $750,000, it was hardly going to be something small. That said, Chris Farley was originally set to star in the film, but scheduling issues meant he had to drop out of the production.
Then, it became clear, there was a gap in Carrey’s schedule. Canton got his chequebook out. Rewrites made the film darker, and more tailored for Carrey. He was offered, and took, $20m to star in the film. That was half of the film’s budget.
It was a shock for the Hollywood establishment, and not a welcome one. As Entertainment Weekly reported at the time, “Canton had half of Hollywood choking on their double decaf nonfat lattes when he announced he was paying Jim Carrey $20 million — nearly double what megastars like Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford had been earning”.
The knock-on was that star salaries went north. John Travolta was said, depending on which story you believe, to have upped his price to either $20,000,001 or $21,000,000. He’d been chatted about for an Oscar nomination for his performance in Get Shorty, but that never materialised. Could his salary demands and the alleged one-upmanship invovlement have dissuaded his peers from voting for him?
That notwithstanding, all eyes were on Carrey and The Cable Guy in the summer of 1996. What hadn’t been expected was that top dollar was being paid for what should have been a dark, perhaps indie-tinged black comedy. Audiences expecting another Dumb And Dumber were not going to get it. The reviews were not kind, the audience word of mouth at times hostile.
It was arguably a case of expectation management. Away from the glare of summer blockbuster season, the reputation of The Cable Guy has got rightly richer, and its merits reassessed. Yet – and this article doesn’t help – it’ll always have its place in Hollywood history for the star salary ceiling it broke.
Since then, of course, the reliance on movie stars has dissipated somewhat, although the Netflix era is bringing that back. Nonetheless, special effects rose, movie star vehicles fell. The savvier stars took gambles, with a lower upfront salary and a cut of the back end instead. For someone like Sandra Bullock on Gravity, that worked out handsomely, giving her by distance the biggest payday of her career.
For Carrey, he’d hit big again – the $20m he trousered upfront for Liar Liar would be money well spent for Universal – but he would inadvertently become both the peak and beginning of the end of a cash-rich era for movie stars…
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