By Ronald Grover With all the griping about the obscene amounts of money superstar athletes and movie stars get paid, it's easy to forget that some of them are actually worth it. Take Julia Roberts, who is worth every cent of the $20 million studios send to her bank account for each film she does. In fact, she may be the single most bankable star on the planet. Just look at the number of people who plunked down their $8 ($10 in New York) to see her in America's Sweethearts, which opened July 20 and bagged $31 million its first weekend.
Granted, America's Sweethearts is a very funny movie. But funny isn't enough to account for its impressive opening, especially when it started the same weekend as those dinosaurs from Jurassic Park III. Give the credit to Roberts. When it comes to bringing bodies into a theater, no actress does it better. And isn't that what you're paying someone $20 million for, anyhow?
Look at Julia's track record. Go back over her last seven films -- all the way back to Notting Hill in 1999 -- and six of them crossed the $20 million mark on their opening weekends. Which one didn't? Stepmom, and that one merely did $19.1 million in its first three days. Heck, even the worst film Julia has every made -- Dreamworks' The Mexican -- opened at $20.1 million before falling off a ledge and grossing a very un-Roberts-like $66 million. O.K., she had a couple of clunkers in the past 10 years -- Mary Reilly, anyone? But with 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia was back on top.
STAR QUALITY. Roberts is a marketing department's dream. No one delivers more bang for the buck. If you've seen America's Sweethearts, you know that Julia isn't the star. That would be Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays the central character. But Roberts can light up the screen like no one else. Did you catch her grinning with Katie Couric on Today or with Dave Letterman on his show? In fact, Revolution Studios, former Disney studio chief Joe Roth's new baby, was smart enough to make sure that Julia was the most prominent star on its posters, on its trailers -- you name it. The world thought this was a Julia Roberts film, despite her playing second fiddle to Zeta-Jones.
Industry analysts predict the film will very likely climb past $100 million. That's a good number under the best of circumstances. And impending competition from the much-ballyhooed Planet of the Apes, slated to open July 27, and the dog days of August don't exactly make for the best of circumstances.
No, Hollywood doesn't deserve criticism for what it pays Roberts. The problem is all the other actresses riding her wake. That's right, if Julia can get $20 million, it lifts every half-marketable actress right along with her. (Don't get me started on overpaid leading men. That's another column.) Does anyone out there really think that Nicole Kidman, on the basis of her warbling performance in Moulin Rouge, is worth $15 million? Well, that's her asking price these days, based in part on the $14.4 million that Moulin Rouge generated in its first full weekend back in June.
JULIA FACTOR. The lineup of actresses who are getting bigger paydays than they deserve isn't limited to Kidman. How about the $15 million that Cameron Diaz is getting to be in Sony's upcoming romantic comedy The Sweetest Thing? Cameron is pretty, but can she carry a film or open one? No way. She's still riding the wave of her success with There's Something About Mary, for which she was paid $2 million, plus the more recent Charlie's Angels, which got her up to $12 million. She didn't have to carry either of those films on her own slender shoulders.
It's the Julia factor at work. Sony, which had this romantic comedy in hand, was desperate for "someone just like Julia." So they went out and got the closest thing they could find, a fresh, smiling 30-year-old Diaz, who was hot off a big hit. Wanna take bets on whether she can open The Sweetest Thing, which also stars Christina Applegate, with anything close to $15 million?
Reese Witherspoon may be the latest beneficiary of the Julia factor. She turned in one of the year's best performances as a wily yet air-headed blond in MGM's Legally Blonde. Witherspoon's salary for that one was $2 million, pushing the overall budget to a very affordable $18 million. So, the film goes out and opens at $20.4 million, and is likely to go north of $75 million before all is said and done. What's Witherspoon's price tag now? Just $6 million. The problem is, what kind of role do you find next for a 26-year-old southern belle from Tennessee? I'm not gonna wager my meager salary on whether her next starring movie will open for more than $6 million, but it won't be much more than that.
INDECENT SALARY. There are plenty of others who belong on the overpaid-actress list: Sharon Stone and Sandra Bullock, for example. But there is no greater example than Demi Moore. She was a steal at $1 million for 1993's Indecent Proposal, which grossed $106 million in the U.S. and more than $266 million worldwide. She was red-hot then, thanks to her part in the 1990 weeper Ghost. Of course, in Indecent Proposal, she also had stars like Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson, who was actually hot at the time, to help her open Proposal. Pretty soon, Moore's asking price was $12 million, which she got for agreeing to do Striptease, which appeared in 1996.
But something funny happened in between Proposal and Striptease. Moore's career cratered. In 1995, she did the Hester Prynne role in The Scarlet Letter, which did a horrendous $10 million at the box office. Still, Sony was on the hook for the $12 million for Striptease. When the film did only $32.8 million at the box office, the Japanese-owned studio knew it was the one that got stripped. Moore hasn't made many movies since then, and, since 1997, has mostly been raising her kids on the place in Idaho that she and her now ex-husband Bruce Willis bought.
All of which brings me back to Roberts. Sure, she's expensive. Most things that you gotta have are. And Hollywood's gotta have Julia Roberts. She's got a definite appeal to folks over 25, as the polling showed with America's Sweethearts. So studio executives can't wait to shove money at her, if she'll agree to be in one of their films. I can't say I blame them. It's all the bridesmaids waiting to catch the Runaway Bride's bouquet that are the problem. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online