By Ronald Grover Hollywood never fails to amaze. Take the wondrous tale of Vin Diesel. For the edification of those like me who, until recently, barely knew he existed, Diesel is the muscle-bound, shaved-head, 34-year-old star of Universal's surprise blockbuster, The Fast and the Furious. The low-budget car-chase pic did an astounding $143 million at the domestic box office this summer.
Diesel is also the target in Hollywood's latest bidding war, with a salary that is fast approaching the gross national product of some island nations. Word in the trades is that Diesel, who made around $700,000 for his role in Fast and Furious, just signed a $10 million deal with Joe Roth's Revolution Studios to make a movie called XXX, in which he will play a CIA agent who infiltrates a Russian crime ring.
That was before Universal and Fox started vying to showcase Diesel's talents. Now his salary, I've been told by people who know, has been bumped up to $11 million to star in Universal's The Chronicles of Riddick, a sequel to the space action flick Pitch Black, a modest hit in which Diesel played a brooding convict on a space mission. (Diesel's agent declined to comment on his client's salary.)
ACTION STARS DIM. Diesel must be one happy fellow these days. But all his good fortune raises the question: Why is a shaved-head muscleman who has made only four films worth that much money anyway? The answer is simply that Hollywood seems to be running out of action stars.
Gone are the days when you could count on an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger opening nearly every Memorial Day weekend against a Sylvester Stallone movie. Nearly every year saw Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson playing over-the-top cops on a mission. Has anyone seen Claude Van Damme recently?
These guys are getting a little long in the tooth to pull off roles as thick-necked, bulging-muscle heroes with stern glances. The audience just doesn't seem to buy the notion that the 55-year-old Stallone can take on thugs, as witnessed by his sorry showing in last year's Get Carter. Heck, Universal is quietly shelving a Stallone movie called Eye See You. At least Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford have seen the handwriting on the wall and have opted for nonaction roles, with Ford scoring big with the supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath and Willis doing the same with more conventional roles in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
SPECIAL EFFECTS. So, who are the action stars of today? Based on the box office for their last few films, it would be Jackie Chan (with sometimes sidekick Chris Tucker) and Brendan Fraser. It says a lot about the sorry state of Hollywood that the hottest action stars are a duo that couldn't, on a good day, lift one of Arnold's old barbells. Chan, a veteran of three decades of Hong Kong martial arts films, has averaged $136.4 million in his last three films. Fraser's average is $120.8 million for his last three flicks.
The common factor behind all these guys' box-office performance is special effects. Anyone who saw Brendan Fraser in The Mummy or The Mummy Returns sure as heck didn't go to see Fraser's impression of a young Indiana Jones. It was those marching mummies, or whatever they were, and the other assorted creepy things that George Lucas' special effects shop ILM dreamed up. Fraser, who got $12.5 million from Universal to return for the sequel but was pushing for $20 million, was told point blank by studio biggies that they didn't need him and could simply fire up those computers to turn out more goblins.
As for Jackie Chan, half the magic of Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2 is his brilliant fighting. The other is Tucker's wisecracking, which means Chan and Tucker together make for one action star. And they didn't come cheap -- Tucker got $20 million for the second Rush Hour, Chan $15 million plus a hefty piece of the action.
Even Tom Cruise, a huge international star who can carry a romantic movie like Jerry McGuire, still needed tons of special effects to turn him into an action hero for last year's Mission Impossible 2. Cruise got $20 million, along with a piece of the revenues, and the movie's budget zoomed to $130 million. Stars Ben Affleck and Cuba Gooding, Jr. were considered so peripheral to the movie Pearl Harbor that, despite their presumed box office draw, each took huge pay cuts so director Jerry Bruckheimer could put in more exploding battleships.
HOLLYWOOD CALCULUS. All of which probably helps to justify, at least in some Hollywood folks' minds, the notion that Diesel might actually be worth $11 million. The Hollywood calculus is actually easy to follow. Stick in a new guy who's heavy on the muscle and light on the age lines, and you save money from the start.
Stallone, even in his box office twilight, still wants $15 million or so for a film. Arnold won't step in front of the camera for less than $20 million, despite such recent flops as End of Days and The 6th Day. So if it is going to cost $40 million or more in special effects to surround your star, why not lop $7 million or $8 million off the budget from the top?
Of course, the real question is this: Can Diesel open a movie? That, after all, is what really matters in Hollywood. A few months back, I got in trouble with some readers of this column by asserting that Julia Roberts was worth every penny of the $20 million she's paid because she can open a movie (see BWOL, 7/27/01, Hollywood's Sweetheart, For a Very Good Reason). The last seven she has been in have each enjoyed opening weekends that at least covered her $20 million paycheck. And, by my reckoning, that's the measure of stars today -- they have to have the name recognition and the drawing power to force folks away from their TV sets and into a movie theater.
DIESEL DOUBT. Can Diesel do that? I doubt it. In fact, guaranteed box office winners are very few -- maybe Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Even the formerly dependable Adam Sandler had that stinker Little Nicky last year.
All of which makes me wonder: What makes Revolution Studios and Universal think Diesel is worth all this money? It's hard for me to rationalize even the money Universal paid him to star as the bad guy in The Fast and The Furious. I went to the movie to watch the speeding, crashing cars.
Folks at Universal swear Diesel was one of the reasons it went on to do more than $143 million at the box office. Hollywood insiders say the movie did especially well with African Americans and Hispanics, groups which traditionally make up a large segment of the action film audience.
But $11 million for a guy who played second fiddle to a speeding car? Maybe that's why they call Hollywood Tinseltown. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online