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Company Town : 'Santa Clause' Greatly Improves Tim Allen's Star

November 15, 1994|JOHN LIPPMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looks like an early Christmas for Tim Allen. The comedian has scored a rare triple play with the top-rated TV show in ABC's "Home Improvement," a best-selling book and this weekend's second-highest-grossing movie, Disney's "The Santa Clause."

Based on that success, Allen seems poised to become one of Hollywood's most bankable comedic stars. On its opening weekend, "The Santa Clause" grossed $20 million at the box office, making it the third-best premiere for a Walt Disney film in history. Moreover, Allen scored in his first time at bat in all three areas--TV, movies and publishing.

"I feel like Newt Gingrich right now," said a jubilant Richard Baker, a partner in the talent management firm of Messina Baker Entertainment, the chief strategists behind Allen's career. "Wait . . . maybe that doesn't sound so good," he said with a laugh.

Whatever it sounds like, there's no denying that Baker and partner Rick Messina, who function as Allen's de facto agents, have in Allen that rare crossover performer. And guess what? His price tag just went up.

"Based on the successful opening of this film, Tim will be in the highest echelon of film salaries," Baker predicted. Baker won't quantify it, but observers expect Allen to get between $8 million and $10 million for his second film--maybe more--putting him in a league with Robin Williams and Tom Hanks.

The measure that Baker and Messina are applying to Allen might be called the "Jim Carrey multiple." Shortly after Carrey's "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" premiered with a $12-million opening weekend box office, Carrey was able to command a $7-million fee for his next films. Until then, Carrey was best known as one of the ensemble cast from Fox's "In Living Color," a critically acclaimed but much lower-rated series than Allen's "Home Improvement."

Allen has a much higher profile than Carrey. "Home Improvement" is watched by about 40 million people each week. In its fourth year on ABC, the series has turned out to be the second-highest-grossing prime-time network show in syndication, generating about $400 million for the rerun rights of the first 125 episodes. Including advances from syndication proceeds, Allen is said to earn $200,000 an episode--or $5 million a season.

Allen's success is also a big bonanza for Disney, which has essentially turned him into a franchise. Besides producing "Home Improvement" and "The Santa Clause," the company's Hyperion books unit published Allen's "Never Stand Too Close to a Naked Man," which is now entering its seventh week on the coveted New York Times bestseller list. Allen and co-writer David Rensin hammered out the book earlier this spring during lunch breaks in Allen's trailer on the set of "Santa Clause" in Toronto.

At a recent management retreat, Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth was already talking of more projects with Allen.

TV comedians have usually had a hard time on the big screen, with Robin Williams one big exception. Bill Cosby experienced an embarrassing flop with "Mystery Dad" at the height of "The Cosby Show," and Roseanne Arnold co-starred with Meryl Streep in the ill-fated "She-Devil" at her show's peak three years ago.

Not that failure in movies has financially crimped either Cosby or Roseanne. Cosby's gross take from the rerun proceeds of his show is estimated at nearly $300 million and Roseanne's could be about a third of that--although Money magazine recently declared, after inspecting her divorce papers, that Roseanne and husband Tom Arnold were among the worst money managers in the world.

As might be expected, however, good fortune brings its own set of problems. Allen--who, unlike most other comedic actors has never had an agent--lets his managers Baker and Messina field the offers and leaves the hard-tacks negotiating to his lawyer, Dennis Ardi of Shearman & Sterling, a Wall Street law firm known more for its work in corporate securities than gross points percentages.

"We tried to get Tim an agent when we first started working with him," Baker recalled. "No one wanted him until he booked the TV series. Then we started getting major agency interest, which increased after the series debuted. . . . The fact that he's had this much success without a legit agent is an interesting phenomenon."

And of course, without an agent, Allen doesn't have to fork over 10% of his earnings to a third party.

Though more movies are likely for Allen, Baker thinks they will be limited to about one a year. That's because he is contracted to do three more years of "Home Improvement" after this season, which leaves little time for extracurricular activities--no matter how lucrative the offers.

Some observers credit Allen's success in "The Santa Clause" to Disney's marketing acumen. The studio found the right vehicle for the comedian. It then ran with the ball, plastering pictures of Allen in his Santa Claus get-up on countless billboards and bus stops.

But Baker rejects the notion that clever marketing alone has anything to do with Allen's success. He has heard people question the reasons for the comedian's success before, citing a trade magazine review of "Home Improvement" that described the pilot as a "one-note show, and not a very good note at that." But Baker says Allen has tremendous drawing power.

So, a TV show, a book, a movie--what's next?

"Tim wants his own theme park," cracked Baker. "Tim Al-land."

Inside Hollywood: For more Company Town coverage and insightful analysis of the entertainment industry, sign on to the TimesLink on-line service and "jump" to keyword "Inside Hollywood."

Details on Times electronic services, B4

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