Today, we continue to note some of the fascinating nuggets of early film business lore that are included in Episode 2 of TCM’s brilliant “Moguls and Movie Star” series.
As I pointed out in Wednesday’s blog, the movie business literally exploded between 1910 and 1920. Box office grosses soared but, unfortunately, so did star salaries. By 1917, Charlie Chaplin (pictured at left in his famous “Little Tramp” persona) was making $125,000 per film, and he made several films a year. As a cultural comparison, schoolteachers at that time made about $1000 per year.
As a result, film profits were severely affected. William Fox, one of the founding moguls of the film business (and later 20th Century Fox) decided to do something about it. Until that moment, stars had been portrayed in the press as quite literally who they were. For instance, Mary Pickford was a cheery America’s sweetheart, Mabel Normand was a goofy comedienne, etc. In other words, what you saw on screen was a reflection of the actor’s own persona.
Eschewing already established stars, Fox decided to hire unknowns and manufacture his own stars, and, even more importantly, their identities. To that end, he found an unknown actress whom he thought would be a great “vamp” on screen and renamed her Theda Bara. Ms. Bara was then instructed to literally personify the vamp personality that she portrayed in her films. And the era of manufactured personalities began.
Interestingly, Fox’s instinct about star salaries was prescient, as the following excerpt from Bringing Back The Old Hollywood illustrates:
“$25 Million: But What About My Dog Trainer?
The soaring salary demands of actors (twenty-five million dollars plus percentage points of the gross for the top stars) and the astronomicalcost of television advertising have pushed the average cost of a Hollywood film to well over one hundred million dollars.
Yes, that’s the average cost. It wasn’t too long ago that no film even came close to costing that much.
And you read the sentence above correctly. Even though the definition of “gross” varies widely, top stars and directors now get a piece of the gross receipts as well.
Those twenty-five million dollar/gross point deals are not even the entire package for the big name stars. Let’s not forget the “perks.”
The deals for those stars call for several first class round trip tickets to and from the location for the star’s family. Assistants, fitness trainers, masseuses/masseurs, drivers, personal make up artists, and hair stylists are also paid for by the studio and premium first class motor homes are also provided.
The crowning “are you kidding me?” lowlight of these deals, however, is the fact that the stars also receive per diems on location that can exceed five thousand dollars per week.
Yes, that is in addition to their twenty-five million dollar salaries. Obviously, twenty-five million dollars is not enough money to pay for your own hotel room or food, right?
Of course we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Look, there’s a signpost up ahead.
We just entered The Twilight Zone.”
As we indeed bring back The Old Hollywood, one of our many goals must be to remember the lessons of film history so we don’t repeat them.