Studios need to make more movies. They're pushing up the availability of their films on pay-per-view (they get a bigger slice of the gross that way), which means shorter runs at the theater, which means quicker turnover, which means the studios need to up their output to keep theaters filled. And then there's the fact that they need to satisfy consumers who are devouring more content than ever on an increasing number of devices. Because few companies of any industry are expanding their operating budgets in this economic environment, bringing down the cost of each film becomes imperative. Of course, all studios say they are doing this, and to some extent they are, but I’m still surprised to see one expense that has not been attacked aggressively and which would not impact the quality of any film: star perquisites or "perks" — those luxurious bonus demands like private jets, masseuses, and gym trailers.
I’m not talking about how much stars are paid. When calculating salary offers, execs make reasoned analyses about the value of adding someone to a cast, given their salary, versus what it will do to the budget. But after that decision is made and the upfront fee is negotiated, the rest of the contract's details are not thought through with the same circumspection. I don’t remember a deal ever being blown over a perk package. Knowing this, a star’s representatives have a lot of leverage to push on perks once a fee is set. Since they work on commission, agents don't make one more dime by getting a client a luxurious list of perks, but they still have incentive to score a good deal; it justifies their participation and, more importantly, they don’t want a client calling them and saying, “Why didn’t I get this?”
Many studio executives think perks aren’t worth fighting over, and they're mistaken. I’ve heard of perk packages exceeding $2 million for one actor on one film. That may be a small percentage of the $20 million that that actor was probably paid to do the movie, but none of that money is translated into what the audience sees. And when you apply that same line item to an entire slate of movies, some of which have multiple stars in the cast, the year's total can equal the entire cost of one additional, modestly budgeted film. Just as importantly, these perks are decadent and wasteful at a time when decadence and waste should really be reined in. To give an idea of just how ridiculously pricey these packages are, here is an actual example of a major star’s list of perquisites:
Expenses and Perks
· Private jet transportation on a Gulfstream GV or comparable aircraft to and from each location for Performer and his traveling companions. Five first-class round trip tickets to each location for Performer's family. (ALTERNATIVE: Non-accountable private jet allowance of $350,000 for travel during production. Additional allowance for publicity-related travel.)
· Fully furnished accommodations of Performer's choice (rental house, apartment, or otherwise), with telephone, utilities, cable or satellite television, and daily maid service paid, plus a non-accountable monthly expense allowance of $10,000. A fax machine with laser printer at the accommodations, plus a computer with high-speed Internet service.
· Trailer: on location, first-class, full-size (40-ft. or larger) star trailer with star accommodations, including without limitation, full kitchen (with refrigerator, range, oven and microwave), bedroom with king size bed, bathroom with shower, satellite TV, stereo (with CD and iPod connection), Blue-Ray DVD, hard line phone, fax, computer with high speed Internet access, and daily cleaning service. In town, Producer shall rent Performer's trailer at the rate of $3,000 per week.
· Fully-equipped separate exercise trailer, equipped with a treadmill, Stairmaster, stationary bike, free weights, and massage table, for Performer’s exclusive use.
· First-class exclusive car (full-size SUV or luxury car) and driver (approved by Performer) to and from the set each day in town and on location. On location, car and driver to be available on a 24-hour basis.
· Full-size SUV or luxury rental car, with insurance and parking paid, for use by Performer’s family.
· Cell phone reimbursement of $2,000 per month in the United States. If abroad, studio to pay full cost of four international cell phones with unlimited data service.
· Assistant will receive first class hotel accommodations (same hotel as Performer), key crew per diem, a SUV or full-size luxury rental car, cell phone with unlimited data service, first class round trip airfare, and a weekly salary of $2,000 paid direct, commencing six weeks prior to the start date and continuing until 4 weeks following completion of principal photography.
· Assistant will be provided with an exclusive office (with desk, fax with laser printer, and computer with high-speed Internet service).
Additional Personnel (all to be designated or approved by and exclusive to Performer)
· Publicist: A monthly fee of $5,000 plus expenses, payable to Performer's publicist commencing eight weeks prior to start date and continuing through 60 days after the completion of principal photography and recommencing 90 days prior to the release date and continuing through 60 days after the release.
· Trainer: $1,500 per week in town, $5,000 per week on location. First class round-trip air, first class accommodations contiguous to Performer, and crew per diem.
· Security personnel: $5,000 per week, plus crew accommodations, travel, and per diem
· Nutritionist/Chef: $5,000 per week, plus crew accommodations, travel, and per diem
· Performer’s yoga instructor to be engaged during rehearsals and photography, with crew travel, accommodations, and per diem on location.
· Exclusive Hairdresser
· Exclusive Makeup
· Exclusive Wardrobe/Star dresser
· Stunt double
And this package isn’t even at the very top end of the spectrum of what some stars get. Often, there are also a coterie of “associates” on the payroll who are really just part of the entourage and serve no real function on the movie. The above fees for security personnel are also less than some may demand and receive.
Factoring all of it in, you have a huge amount of money unnecessarily spent on behalf of one person. It doesn't need to be this way. In most circumstances, I’m not sure that a star would walk away from a deal if everything he had been used to getting were not given. In fact, in almost every case, a star has accepted way less in the way of perks, either at an earlier point in his career or more recently by doing some independent art film where the budget and style of filmmaking would not support such excess. The person on whose behalf all of this was requested probably makes $10-20 million per film and does at least two of them per year: Stars like this can handle the cost of maintaining whatever style of which they are accustomed. Furthermore, when these actors are not filming a movie, I would guess that they are used to paying for their assistant, publicist, yoga instructor, massage therapist, etc., and if they don’t fly privately when they're not working, they can probably suffer through security at JFK when they are.
I am not against living nicely. I live nicely. When I’m on a movie, I get a per diem, usually about $3,500 per week in a major city, from which I pay for all of my living expenses – a few first-class plane tickets, an assistant for $1,000 per week, and a rental car, which I drive myself. And you know what? I think it is pretty grand. I stay in nice hotels, I get massages, I eat, I use gyms. I’m not hurting. If I want to fly privately, I pay for it myself. It isn’t so tough.
My modest proposal to the studios would be to set a limit on what they dole out for perks and hold to it: Give a star a large amount of money per week to pay for their housing and expenses, say $10,000, plus five airline tickets, a comfortable car (not an SUV), an assistant with a reasonable salary, and a nice trailer. They should have the right to consult on hair, makeup, and a stunt double, but not give them the right to choose someone they can force on the production at an inflated fee, and not necessarily for their exclusive use. (Exceptions would be made if they are in a period film or one that requires major hair and makeup; then maybe they need those key crew members to be exclusive to them.) And there should be security people on the set protecting them when needed, but that’s all. Surprisingly, if adopted, my proposal (which is not exactly austere) would save millions of dollars per year, and I doubt it would cost a studio an opportunity to land an actor in a part. More importantly, it wouldn’t affect the quality or content of any film, and it would leave the studio with more cash for the things that actually end up on screen.
Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company, Pariah, has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter @gavinpolone.