One of the most hyped movies of the summer is "Armageddon," a nonstop barrage of action and sci-fi opening Wednesday and starring Bruce Willis. The $140-million film's blockbuster status is considered a foregone conclusion in Hollywood--despite the fact that Willis' last three movies, "The Fifth Element," "The Jackal" and, most recently, "Mercury Rising," didn't exactly break domestic box-office records.
Willis ranks as one of a handful of magic names in movies today--someone whose agreement to appear in a film makes all the difference in whether a studio makes the film or not. Along with a few other select actors like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, Willis still gets the big bucks, $20 million a film.
Why? Despite his recent track record, "he's one of the biggest action stars in the world," says entertainment industry analyst James Ulmer, who regularly tracks actors' box-office clout. Every so often the media question whether stars are worth that kind of money. The answer, at least for action films, is still yes.
"Action movies are very expensive and the decision to make them is completely based on financial models of what these guys draw on a global basis," says producer Sean Daniel, one of the producers of "The Jackal."
FOR THE RECORD - Correcting Record on Willis, Cinergi
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 4, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 6 inches; 193 words Type of Material: Correction
On June 30, the Los Angeles Times Calendar section printed a story by writer Richard Natale titled "The $20-Million Club: Are They Worth It?" In the article there are several statements by the writer regarding Bruce Willis. Had he checked with me, he would have found out these statements are totally false.
L.A. Times: "A couple of years ago Willis walked off a movie called 'Broadway Brawler' a week into production, a serious breach of contract."
Fact: Bruce Willis brought this project to Cinergi because he wanted financing. With Bruce's name attached to the project I was very happy to finance the film. Bruce Willis never walked off the movie, and we were four weeks into production. He was the producer of the movie, therefore there was no breached contract. Due to irreconcilable differences, he discharged the director. Bruce Willis took full responsibility and everybody was reimbursed.
L.A. Times: "Cinergi, the film production company behind 'Broadway Brawler,' sued him."
Fact: Cinergi was a public company that I was president of and at no time did we ever sue or contemplate suing Bruce Willis. He also reimbursed me for every dollar spent on the movie, which is unheard of in this business from a star of his stature. In fact, I'm trying to find something we can do together in the near future.
I would appreciate The Times making these corrections.
The upside on action films is enormous. Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" and Ford's "Air Force One" were gigantic hits, grossing well in excess of $300 million. That's why major action stars are better paid than other actors (exceptions include Jim Carrey for his comedies and Tom Hanks, the rare star who draws in almost any kind of film).
Most Hollywood movies travel well outside the U.S. Action movies travel extremely well. They contain few cultural or language barriers--an explosion is an explosion is an explosion. Overseas is where all the box-office growth has been over the past decade. And with China and other densely populated Asian markets like India and Indonesia growing stronger, the foreign market is where all the extra film revenue will come for at least the next decade, according to one former studio head turned producer.
Sure, romances like "Titanic," "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman" were mega-hits everywhere. But the worldwide acceptance of such films, Hollywood has traditionally believed, is unpredictable. The studios hate unpredictability. The "Die Hard" series (starring Willis), the "Lethal Weapon" films (starring Mel Gibson)--those are sure things. And the major studios are willing to pay almost any price for a sure thing. Warner Bros. is shelling out about 40% of its return on "Lethal Weapon 4" to Gibson, Danny Glover and other profit participants, making it virtually impossible for the studio to recoup on the $120-million film, which opens July 10.
But that doesn't matter to the people who buy films abroad, says Rick Hess, president of production at Phoenix Pictures, who formerly worked in foreign sales. "The foreign sales business is very reactive. Once an actor has hit abroad, it's hard to take that value away from him."
Even before he proved his action chops, Willis was highly paid, demanding a then-unprecedented $5 million for the first "Die Hard." And he hasn't looked back, even though "The Fifth Element," "The Jackal" and "Mercury Rising" did substantially less than $100 million in the U.S. ("Mercury Rising" barely cracked $30 million.) But "The Fifth Element," a French production, was an enormous hit overseas, particularly in France, where it ranks as the top-grossing domestic movie of all time.
"The Jackal," which earned about $55 million in the U.S., grossed more than $150 million worldwide, producer Daniel says. "There's only one way to calculate an actor's worth," Daniel says, "and that's on a global basis. On that level there are only Cruise, Ford, Gibson and Willis."
If "Armageddon" succeeds, the actor's recent underperforming movies will be erased from the memory bank. That's what happened when Willis starred in "Die Hard With a Vengeance," made in 1995. The third in the John McClane action series (a fourth, "Tears of the Sun," is on the drawing boards) pumped the adrenaline back into Willis' career after a few duds, including "Striking Distance" and "The Color of Night." Worldwide, the film grossed almost $500 million.
For Willis, that kind of franchise is like having comeback insurance from Lloyd's of London. You can always cash in on the policy.