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How Johnny Depp Made $1 Million in a Week

Issue 6 BIZ Boarding Illustration - H 2014
Evan Hughs

The cost-effective business of film stars and "boarding" scenes: Where A-listers work on a compressed schedule, studios save, and everyone keeps the illusion of his or her quote.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In Hollywood today, studios and stars alike are trying to get more bang for their buck.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the practice of "boarding," where a star parachutes into a high-profile movie for a few days or a few weeks and all of his or her scenes are blocked out for a quick shoot, is on the rise. For producers increasingly under pressure to keep star salaries in check, boarding often means scoring an A-lister without having to pay his or her full quote. And big actors have become more willing to take non-starring roles -- as long as they can be whisked in and out, leaving time for more movies.

For instance, Johnny Depp slashed his $20 million quote to appear in Disney's upcoming musical Into the Woods. He was boarded in for a week on the London set and was paid $1 million, according to sources. Given the risky nature of musicals, the film needed to be made on a budget of about $40 million. Depp's move -- a favor to Disney and helmer Rob Marshall, who directed Depp in the studio's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- allowed the film to be greenlighted. It also allows the actor's representatives to maintain that his quote is intact.

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But boarding's downside is that producers often find themselves tearing their hair out trying to fit an A-list widget into a thousand-part machine. "Scheduling is such a complicated process, more art than science," says producer Douglas Wick (The Great Gatsby, Divergent). "It can hurt a project if you're at the mercy of getting someone in and out in 10 days. Boarding adds a real tyranny to the equation."

Still, many stars have become popular drop-in players. Bruce Willis has morphed into the poster boy for paycheck-driven boarding: He was boarded in for 2012's The Expendables 2 (as was co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger) and 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Although Willis' role in the latter could best be described as an extended cameo, he loomed front and center in key art for the film, which grossed more than $375 million worldwide. "Everyone knows he is for sale for $1 million a day," says one top producer. "It's not crazy because he adds a certain value in the international market."

But when Expendables filmmakers offered Willis $3 million to be boarded in for four days on the third movie, he balked, demanding $4 million, and was replaced by Harrison Ford.

Dwayne Johnson, whose quote on action films is in the $15 million range, was boarded in for four weeks of work on 2013's Fast & Furious 6 at a discount. But he was used extensively in the film's marketing campaign.

There's also a cottage industry for villains with pedigree. Producers cite such top choices as John Malkovich and Gary Oldman, who frequently are boarded in for short stints in films like 2012's Lawless (Oldman did four days of work as a ruthless mobster). Similarly, Martin Scorsese boarded in Jack Nicholson for his best picture Oscar winner The Departed. But the practice did not come without headaches: A source says that during filming, a Nicholson rep would hover and begin pointing to his watch when the actor's contractual number of hours was reached.

"Boarding is basically a way of, for lack of a better word, mailing it in," says an agent who increasingly has seen clients maximize their time to pursue lower-paying passion projects.

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Depp's Into the Woods co-star Meryl Streep was boarded in for two weeks of work on the South African set of Phillip Noyce's upcoming sci-fi film The Giver. The movie's financiers, The Weinstein Co. and Walden Media, needed to bolster the supporting cast around young, untested star Brenton Thwaites. Who better than Streep to add gravitas and name recognition to the project? "We were able to drop Meryl in for 10 days, which was a win-win because we get Meryl to promote the movie, but no one gets paid a big salary," says TWC's David Glasser.

Ditto for Kate Winslet, who was boarded in for work on Summit's March sci-fi release Divergent. With the addition of an Oscar winner, the would-be franchise starring upstart Shailene Woodley quickly separated from its young-adult brethren like The Mortal Instruments (though in Winslet's case, the boarding also was done to accommodate her pregnancy). "Out of courtesy to her, you say, 'OK, to what extent can we try and make it as convenient as possible?' " says Wick, who draws a distinction between Winslet's case and others. "There was no way we were going to spread her out over the whole shoot." There are plans to board in Winslet for a second Divergent if the film is greenlighted.

And as studios continue to look to the Streeps, Winslets and Depps to elevate material and pack a marketing punch, the practice likely will continue unabated.

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27