Inside Johnny Depp's $20 Million Salary Standoff

Johnny Depp
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The actor's "Black Mass" negotiation heats up amid a debate over whether a reduced fee is fair.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Call it a case of conflicting testimony. 

As jury selection got under way June 4 in the trial of reputed mobster Whitey Bulger, Johnny Depp’s involvement in the Bulger pic Black Mass took a dramatic turn the same day. The actor now remains highly likely or unlikely to star, depending on who you ask. Sources say Depp's reps are back at the negotiating table for the actor to rejoin the drama.

On May 30, Depp exited the project after financiers Cross Creek and Exclusive Media asked him to slash his upfront salary from $20 million to $10 million. A source close to the project now says there's "a 95 percent chance" the star will return to the role of the ruthless gang leader, who is on trial for his part in 19 murders. But other insiders say Depp remains off the project, with little chance of returning.

Furthermore, both sides disagree on what prompted Depp to all but walk away from the drama that would have teamed him with director Barry Levinson.

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Though rumors swirled that Depp’s deal to star in the gangster drama never closed, sources close to Depp dispute that, insisting his $20 million payday was papered long before the project was presented to buyers at February’s European Film Market in Berlin. In fact, Cross Creek felt pressured to seal the deal given that Depp was also negotiating to star in Wally Pfister's Transcendence (which is now in production with Depp in the lead)Levinson’s pact was also closed before Berlin.

But a Cross Creek source painted a different picture, saying Depp and Levinson’s deals included language that required the budget of the film to top off at $50 million. When the budget came in at $63 million, Cross Creek asked all of the film’s above-the-line talent, including co-star Joel Edgerton to slash their salaries to make up the $13 million.

But insiders in the foreign presales world say that while actors often lend their names to films to drum up business, trying to renegotiate a closed deal with a star like Depp would be unprecedented.

“This situation is absurd,” a source says. “You would never have a star of Depp’s magnitude and not have all of the deal’s preconditions buttoned down before taking it to market. Either his team screwed up and left him exposed or Cross Creek is simply reneging on its deal. Someone is suing someone at the end of this.”

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UTA, which reps both Depp and Levinson, declined to comment. Cross Creek’s Brian Oliver would only say that Depp is still technically involved, and the two sides are trying to make it work. “We hope it’s with Johnny, but we’re going to make this film happen either way.”

Still, a source close to Levinson was surprised by Depp's supposed reversal and know of no change in the situation since Depp bolted last week. Everyone is assuming the current incarnation of the movie is dead. CAA, which reps Cross Creek, has approached client Tom Cruise about the project, according to another source (Levinson directed Cruise in Rain Man). But a Cross Creek source says the financiers are trying to find a solution with Depp. The actor would earn somewhere around $15 million if the two sides can come to terms.

If Cross Creek can't find a way to keep Depp on the project, it would create a huge headache. Exclusive Media sold a raft of territories during the recent Berlin and Cannes markets.

And the clock is ticking on the project. Levinson has about two weeks for either Depp to rejoin or to find a replacement because the director is committed to a February 2014 start date in China for the Mike Medavoy-produced drama The Cursed Piano. A minimal crew remains in place in Boston for Black Mass (though another source disputes that the crew is still in place), and Cross Creek says additional crew is heading out to the location in the coming days. Depp was expected to join the set on Aug. 12.

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The actor, who next stars in Disney's The Lone Ranger, is known to take pay cuts for passion projects. He will make less than a million upfront for Disney’s Into the Woods with director Rob Marshall. UTA simply bristled at the idea of a renegotiation for what they considered a closed deal for Black Mass.

“The second they asked him to take a cut, that was a mistake,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “They overplayed their hand.”

Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson, John Lesher and Christi Dembrowski are producing Black Mass.

Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk wrote the screenplay, which is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and a Devil's Deal.

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