How much is an Academy Award win really worth? Marlow Stern talks with experts—including Mr. Oscar, Harvey Weinstein—to find out how much that gold statue matters in a star's career.
But can quality roles and ample compensation reach a happy medium for an actor? Let’s revisit the Academy Awards’ tipping point— The Crying Game. The 1992 critical and commercial success was produced and distributed by then-fledgling independent company Miramax Films and garnered six Academy Award nominations in 1993, including Best Picture. With Miramax, brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein ushered in Oscar’s “indiewood” era, in which, “The Oscars became dominated by independent movies, ” as Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton explained to The Daily Beast. By 1997, the year Miramax’s The English Patient won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, four of the five Best Picture nominees were made outside the major studio system. At last year’s Oscars, either independent studios or indie specialty divisions were responsible for five of the 10 Best Picture nominees.
Thanks to the “indiewood” takeover, actors are often forced to take drastic pay cuts with Oscar-bait indie films in order to court the coveted award. The combined estimated salary of all 10 of the top acting nominees at last year’s Academy Awards was just over $20 million, according to The New York Times. That’s just a tad more than the alleged $20 million Angelina Jolie was paid to sport a blond wig and wield a machine gun in Salt last year. The Hurt Locker, which won Best Picture in 2010, grossed just north of $17 million at the domestic box office, and most of its stars were paid at or around the Screen Actors Guild minimum of $65, 000 plus overtime, according to the Times.
“The simple reason why [actors] go from getting out of the Oscar category is because they’ve won their Oscar for work where they’re not generously paid, ” said Sony CEO Lynton. “Once they win their Oscar, they feel like they want to make a decent fee, and they take parts in larger commercial movies.”
“They deserve bigger paydays after winning Oscars, ” said Harvey Weinstein. “I don’t think there’s any problem with that.”
The studios, in turn, hire these award-winning actors to lend their tent-pole productions more credibility, while the actors accept the role for the money, in what one studio executive deemed “a mutually beneficial arrangement.” Lynton hired Christoph Waltz, winner of last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as an insidious, multilingual Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, to play the villain in this year’s The Green Hornet. (Waltz and the other actors mentioned declined comment via their reps.)
“You’re working with one of the world’s best directors [ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Michel Gondry], so why not do The Green Hornet?” said Harvey Weinstein, former Miramax honcho and current co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, which co-distributed Basterds. “There was an opportunity there.”
That being said, a large number of Oscar-winning actors milk their newfound opportunity for every last drop. After Nicolas Cage won an Academy Award for his convincing portrayal of a drunk in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas—a role that paid him a reported mere $240, 000—he went on to earn a reported hefty $4 million paycheck as a chemical weapons specialist in Michael Bay’s 1996 action-thriller The Rock. Two years later, Cage’s fee quadrupled—he reportedly earned $16 million for the critical and box-office disappointment, Snake Eyes.
“There’s the attitude of ‘I did Leaving Las Vegas and you spent a year of your life making the film, then another year promoting it, ’” said box-office analyst Karie Bible of Exhibitor Relations Co. “So there’s the trend of ‘I did this for the art, now I’m doing it for the mortgage, or the entourage.’” Cage’s taste of Oscar gold metastasized into a desire to “become a big star, ” as Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman told The Daily Beast—and, if his lavish spending is any indication, all that comes along with that fame. In 2009, Cage quite literally left Las Vegas when his home was foreclosed on due to the millions he racked up in unpaid taxes.