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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

A Star Is Born--Before He's Even Been Seen

June 11, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

It's no wonder talent costs are sky high. Only in Hollywood would someone's market value go through the roof before he proves he can draw anyone to the movie theater.

Since last year, Hollywood has been going gaga over Matthew McConaughey, the young star of Warner Bros.' movie adaptation of John Grisham's bestseller "A Time to Kill." As the film's July 26 release approaches, the frenzy over its 26-year-old leading man is heightening.

Studio executives are going after the virtually unknown actor with a vengeance, even before they've had a chance to see his movie.

"He's on the top of everybody's list," one studio head said. "People are throwing money at him."

"This guy's salary is being built on buzz alone," an industry observer says. "It's what's wrong with Hollywood."

For his first starring role in a movie, McConaughey was paid $250,000 to play the white attorney defending a black man in the Deep South in Grisham's courtroom drama, which also stars Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson.

Warner Bros./New Regency Productions (the film's producer) has options on McConaughey to star in his next two movies for the studio. Sources say those deals are preset at about $400,000 and $600,000, but will inevitably be renegotiated upward if "Kill" makes a killing.

Other studios have offered the actor up to $2 million to star in various projects.

"This craze has been going on since January," another studio chief says. Even though the studio head had only seen McConaughey in the trailer to his upcoming movie, "We've been trying to get him on anything; everybody's after him and people have made offers to him in the millions."

The craze is indicative of Hollywood's appetite for fresh, young talent, particularly for leading men and women in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

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There are only a handful of stars whose presence in a movie practically guarantees it will open at the box office. They include Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt.

As for bankable young leading males, pretty much Cruise, Hanks and Pitt are it at the moment.

"There are only so many movies they can do, so the question is, who do you go to next?" a top studio executive muses.

"It's all supply and demand," says Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth. "We make too many movies and there aren't enough stars." After seeing the dailies on Disney's 1994 movie "Angels in the Outfield," in which McConaughey had a nonspeaking role as the third baseman, Roth moved the actor to center field "based on his looks and the way he came off on camera."

Roth added: "Hollywood has a need to create stars, to manufacture heroes, and because of that, people get thrust into the public eye. Sometimes they can pull it off . . . "

Decades ago, under the old studio system, stars were groomed over a period of years, during which they were under contract for multiple pictures.

"The problem in Hollywood today is that Matthew is going to now be expected to carry a movie himself," one high-ranking studio executive says. "It's not good for him to be under that kind of pressure. If he fails, he's old news before he's had a chance to enjoy being new news."

A year ago, New York Times' magazine put Julia Ormond on its cover and wrote a huge story on the making of a Hollywood star. The ingenue was hot off TriStar's hit "Legends of the Fall," in which she starred opposite Pitt. Her next two films, "First Knight" and "Sabrina," flopped.

One top director observes that today "we are in a celebrity-gobbling-up period where we chew stars up and spit them out."

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Texas native McConaughey first came to Hollywood's attention in 1993 playing a bit part as an over-the-hill slacker in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused." He was cast while studying film at the University of Texas. After the film wrapped, he went back and finished school, then landed a part in "Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which did little to boost his career.

His next role, as a righteous cop in Herb Ross' "Boys on the Side," was likened by some to Pitt's standout performance in "Thelma & Louise" and "A River Runs Through It."

But, as those close to McConaughey will tell you, it wasn't until director Joel Schumacher screen-tested the actor in "A Time to Kill," which persuaded Grisham (who had co-approval over casting the leads) to sign off on him, that Hollywood really stood up and took notice.

After paying Grisham $6 million for movie rights to his book, Warner Bros. had been hoping for a star rather than an unknown, but Schumacher and Grisham couldn't agree on anyone. By the time the movie was shot, word began to filter out among Hollywood's executives that McConaughey had the makings of a major star.

"There's just something about him that makes you know he's a big movie star," says another studio head, who also has seen the actor only in the "Kill" trailers. "It's a look, a style, an intelligence. You believe what he does on screen."

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