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If Manny Ramirez came to Hollywood

The movie studios and major league baseball handle salary talks in very different ways.

March 03, 2009|Patrick Goldstein

You can't open up a sports section or read a sports blog without being bombarded by story after story about Manny Ramirez's tumultuous contract negotiations with the Dodgers. The whole affair has an air of melodrama, punctuated with more bitter recriminations, wounded egos and thinly veiled threats than a Middle East peace conference.

But from my perch, what is most fascinating is the astoundingly public nature of the negotiations, with the most intricate financial details all out in the open. The Dodgers have offered Ramirez a two-year, $45-million deal with an opt-out clause that Ramirez could exercise at the end of the first year. Scott Boras, Ramirez's agent, has rejected the Dodgers' proposal, largely on the grounds that a big chunk of the salary was deferred, with most of the payments being spread out over five years, beginning with a $10-million payment this season.

This is decidedly not the way negotiations work in Hollywood. With rare exception, they are conducted totally in private and veiled in secrecy, with most actor salary details filtering out to the showbiz press long after the deal is done and often long after the film has concluded shooting. Sports fans all know how much Kobe Bryant makes with the Lakers or, for that matter, how much David Beckham earned with the Galaxy. But in Hollywood, star salaries are rarely matters of household fascination. For all the insider talk about movie box office and Oscar campaigns, the average fan has little knowledge -- and even more important, little interest -- in how much Ben Stiller will get for "Night at the Museum 2" this summer.

Last week, for example, Sony announced it would make "The B Team," an action comedy that would star Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as cops woefully unprepared for real action. Variety, the leading showbiz trade paper, made the announcement of the deal. But there was no mention of any film budget or star salaries, much less any of the Sturm und Drang that occurred during the negotiations, which involved a number of other studios. If it had been Boras up against Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, we would've been treated to a daily string of breathless stories, recounting the ups and downs of the negotiations, with headlines like "Will Ferrell 'B-Team' Deal Goes Sour: Sony's Amy Pascal Rejects Latest Offer From Endeavor's Ari Emanuel."

Why is Hollywood deal-making so much more cloistered than baseball contract negotiations? Part of it is because of historical precedent, part because of studio culture. Hollywood has always been an insider's business. It's much more closed and contained -- perhaps the best word would be parochial -- than the sports world. In some situations, an outsider -- like me -- can pierce the veil and extract information, as I did in the case of "The B Team" negotiations. (As I wrote on my blog last week, the project came with a fairly large price tag; Sony agreed to shell out roughly $100 million to make the film, with the talent taking home roughly 25% of the first-dollar gross receipts.) But I was able to report this only because there was a bidding war for the Will Ferrell pitch among a number of studios, so there were several studios for me to call that, having lost out on the pitch, had their own motives to share salary and budget details.

When I recently asked a studio marketing executive about a big-star signing his studio had made, he pleaded ignorance, saying, "At our place, our business-affairs guys are so secretive that they often won't even tell me what the numbers are." Baseball, on the other hand, has always been about numbers. Statistics are how you measure a player's worth, so another set of numbers -- a player's salary -- has taken on a greater weight in recent years as a way of tracking a player's value versus his performance.

The two businesses also have a very different history. In baseball, salaries were a pittance until the 1970s, when players were allowed to exercise free agency. Free agency also eventually led to arbitration, where salary numbers were openly bandied about, with the team offering one salary, the player offering another, with an arbiter making a very public final judgment. The more cynical members of the sportswriting profession suspect that the baseball owners are actually often eager to disseminate salary information as a counterweight to powerful sports agents like Boras, who regularly drive up free-agent salaries by exploiting a team's fear that it could be outbid by a rival team, even when it often turns out that there was little or no rival team interest.

In other words, the team owners want the salary figures out in the open so they don't end up bidding against themselves. During the Manny Meltdown, the Dodgers even issued a news release sarcastically referring to Boras' repeated claims that he was fielding other serious offers for Ramirez's services, saying: "When his agent finds those 'serious offers' from other clubs, we'll be happy to restart the negotiations."

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