Cameo code of silence frustrates Hollywood

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CANNES -- Got an A-list star making a brief appearance in your film? Don't even think about spreading the word, nevermind including Mr. A-list in your theatrical marketing campaign.

That's because celebrity cameos -- now more popular than ever in our increasingly self-referential pop culture -- are treated within the film industry with the kind of sensitivity reserved for matters of national security. But why all the secrecy? After all, it's just Vince Vaughn lending his comic talents (sans credit, natch) to the Will Ferrell starrer "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," or Ferrell returning the favor in Vaughn's "Wedding Crashers."

Try being a film reporter and confirming tips about a star cameo. "Has Owen Wilson signed on to co-star in 'Night at the Museum?' " I asked his agency more than a year ago. "Not true," the agency responded. But now Wilson's once-secret (and ever so brief) appearance is prominently featured in ads for "Museum's" DVD.

Above-the-marquee actors typically require a rider that forbids a film's producer from using the "performer's name, voice, photograph, likeness or other attributes in merchandising, soundtrack albums, commercial tie-ins, publishing, theme parks, Web sites or other byproducts or ancillary rights of any kind, or in any other way apart from the exhibition of the entire picture itself, without performer's prior written consent," according to one such contract. Got that? No trailers, no posters, no credits "except only in an end-crawl as may be required by the Screen Actors Guild."

The issue of the stealth cameo surfaced here this week with news of the sale of a film called "Confessions of an Action Star" to Japanese buyers. Although the film's cast boasted A-list cameos, "Confessions" producer Shoreline Entertainment wouldn't confirm said actors. But a trip down to the Majestic Hotel, where footage of the film was on display for buyers, clearly showed Angelina Jolie delivering a Hollywood insider quip.

For studios, publicists and producers trying to get the word out about a film, the cameo code of silence can be frustrating.

"When an A-list actor does a cameo, he or she is usually doing it for free to help out a friend, and it's a labor of love," says a producer who is familiar with the legal constraints of casting a star in a bit part. "But it's frustrating because it could make or break a film. If they are doing it for the love of the director or project, let us (use the star's performance to) draw attention the film." But those now-standard contracts prevent a producer from even admitting that a top-tier celebrity is in his or her movie.

"A lot of times, it's the agent who tells his client, 'Don't let them publicize your role,' " the producer adds. "If you're an agent, you don't want a producer exploiting the goodwill of the actor."

Another reason for the need to keep a star mini-turn hush hush is that it could spoil the surprise and ironic wit. If rumors pan out that Tom Cruise will appear as a despotic studio head in cameo king Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," Hollywood insiders are likely to view it as an unexpected in-joke at the expense of the top execs at his former home studio, Paramount.

For ultimately, such cameos serve the purpose of making audiences feel smart about being industry-savvy. Theatergoers can pat themselves on the back when they recognize comics creator Stan Lee delivering an otherwise unnecessary line in "Spider-Man 3." But don't feel stupid if you didn't know that the little girl with the camera at the end of the film is Sam Raimi's daughter. That's a private joke that plays nowhere outside the gates of Culver City.
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