Jennifer Lawrence's Salary Drama: $20M 'Passengers' Pay Tests Sony

The space romance becomes the first challenge in new studio chief Tom Rothman's effort to trim talent costs as co-star Chris Pratt and the 'Jump Street' guys line up for big raises.

This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

If a person were to try to design a movie project that could simultaneously attract and repel a fiscally prudent studio executive like Sony Pictures' new film chief Tom Rothman, it might be the space drama Passengers.

Rothman found Passengers awaiting his green light when he replaced Amy Pascal in the top job at the studio in late February. And while the project has obvious attractions — with red-hot Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt set to star in the interstellar love story and Morten Tyldum, who scored an Oscar nomination for directing The Imitation Game, on board — it hardly is an obvious yes: talent getting top dollar for an original idea with special effects that Rothman is said to see as a marketing challenge and that doesn't appear to have franchise potential. Not necessarily an easy call for an executive expected to bring restraint to a studio that, under Pascal, long was known for its generosity to talent.

Before Rothman, 60, officially took over, Sony already had agreed to pay Lawrence $20 million to star, though her role actually is somewhat secondary to Pratt's. His deal gives him about $10 million with the possibility (likelihood) of more based on the performance of Universal's Jurassic World reboot (June 12). With its two huge stars, Passengers is important to Sony "because it has a hook; it's marketable internationally," argues one source close to the project, and the studio doesn't have a lot of branded intellectual property in its cupboard.

On the other hand, as is clear from this summer's lineup, studios don't love original ideas at this point. It's also a leap to the next level for Norwegian director Tyldum, who had not made an English-language film before Imitation Game. But that movie's Oscar attention not only put Tyldum in contention for this project, it also fetched him a fee said to be $3 million.

Given commitments to talent, plus the $4 million that Sony had to pay for expenses on a previous iteration of the movie that didn't come to fruition, the studio is looking at a bill of close to $40 million before it can get the cameras rolling. (Passengers has a long history of bouncing around before landing at Sony; at one time, Keanu Reeves was going to star in the Jon Spaihts-scripted project opposite Reese Witherspoon; Rachel McAdams then was attached with Reeves for Game of Thrones director Brian Kirk and The Weinstein Co.)

Lawrence, 24, and her CAA reps are said to have held firm to the $20 million fee. As the Sony hack revealed, she had gotten a smaller percentage of the profit pool from American Hustle than co-stars Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and even Jeremy Renner. Lawrence — arguably the biggest star of the lot at the time — was getting seven points, while the men got nine each. As Sony president Doug Belgrad noted in a hacked email, "It's a joke that JLa is at 7 and Renner is at 9." Having not found that joke funny, sources say Lawrence was prepared to walk away from Passengers if she didn't get to $20 million on this film, and Tyldum was ready to exit with her. Pascal herself might have fanned the flames with her February interview in which she was asked about the Lawrence pay gap. "The truth is that what women have to do is not work for less money," Pascal said. "They have to walk away. People shouldn't be so grateful for jobs."

Sony is said to feel justified in the deal, even if this movie isn't based on a known property like The Hunger Games, because Lawrence got what was regarded as a surprising $15 million to star in Joy, the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop that David O. Russell is making for Fox. Scarlett Johansson is said to be mopping up $17.5 million for the DreamWorks thriller Ghost in the Shell after her mega success with last summer's Lucy

Rothman, no doubt wary of overbudgeting on one of his first big green lights, is trying to hold Passengers to $80 million (or $95 million, depending on whom you ask). Having acceded to the cost of compensating talent, sources say the studio feels it can hold down the expense of special effects and is likely to take on one or more co-financing partners.

Sony still is hammering away at deal points (including backends), and clearly Rothman could pull the plug on the whole thing. A source doesn't expect that to happen, saying Rothman has his eye on becoming a presence in the international market and "can still claim it was the crazy old regime" that approved the fees to talent.

Neal Moritz, a producer on Passengers, says Sony has no reason to balk. "You've got the two biggest stars in the world. We're making the movie at a reasonable cost. It's a great script. It's all good," he says. But several industry insiders say a bar is set in paying Lawrence that $20 million upfront fee in an environment that has seen star salaries squeezed in recent years and when top actors are asked to take smaller paychecks in exchange for backend payments. For instance, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have asked for $20 million each to co-headline a third film in the Jump Street series (they each got $6 million for the first comedy and $10 million for the second, plus a big backend; Sony is said to have offered $15 million for the third). And holding the line is complicated when the studio has paid that much for a star in an untested property.

"At the end, I believe they're going to get $20 million, too," says a top agent. "It's going to have a ripple effect, not just on Jump Street."

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