A few weeks ago I used Nicolas Cage as a framing device to explain the Cannes Marche du Film. Towards the end of the article I presented a chart showing the inflation-adjusted budgets for films starring Nicolas Cage. The chart showed that we reached “Peak Cage” in 2004, which was when the average budgets for his movies reached their all-time high. From 2005 onward, Nicolas Cage’s movies got smaller.
The idea of “Peak Cage” seems to have piqued the interest of a number of readers and I have received some follow-up questions, both in Cannes and via email. So, in the spirit of fun, I thought I’d have a look and see if it also applied to other male movie stars who were big in the 1990s; namely John Travolta, Kevin Costner, Val Kilmer, and John Cusack.
Where it all began – Nicolas Cage
As a reminder of the actor who sparked this whole thing off, see below for average budgets for films starring Nicolas Cage. My methodology here is rather simple; I looked at all feature films where the actor played a significant role, researched the film’s budget, inflation-adjusted it to 2016 USD$ and then looked at the average for each year (the dotted line shows the two-year moving average).
John Travolta‘s career has been one of rising and falling stardom, but his greatest revival came in the mid-1990s. In the early 90s he starred in such classics as Look Who’s Talking and Look Who’s Talking Too so he must have been mightily relieved when Quentin Tarantino cast him as hitman Vincent Vega in cult classic Pulp Fiction.
This new-found coolness caused his stock to rise in the late 1990s, and we reached “Peak Travolta” in the early 2000s.
Waterworld (the movie, not North Staffordshire’s No.1 Indoor Tropical Aqua Park) was the most expensive film of its time, costing a whopping $172 million in 1995, or around $270 million in 2016 dollars. Had the film been a success then Kevin Costner could have counted on it to propel him to further big budget fare. Sadly for ol’ Kev, it was widely seen as a flop and so it stands as an outlier to his otherwise smaller-budgeted career. (Interesting, Waterworld is now regarded as a financial success, making in the region of $67 million profit).
Over the course of his career, the average inflation-adjusted budget for a Kevin Costner film is $63 million.
Val Kilmer’s official website proclaims him as “one of the most prolific actors of his generation”, although I’m not sure by what metric they are calculating this claim. The 92 projects he has on IMDb (including upcoming productions, TV appearances and video games) are dwarfed by Steve Buscemi (142 credits), Danny Trejo (315 credits) and Eric Roberts (428 credits), to name but a few.
“Peak Kilmer” was reached in 2000 with the release of $80 million sci-fi flick Red Planet. Adjusted for inflation that’s north of $110 million and over twice his career average of $47 million.
John Cusack is an interesting example as one movie he made in 2009 stands far apart from anything else he’s ever been involved with – the disastrous disaster movie ‘2012’. The budget of ‘2012’ was a reported $200 million and is almost three times John Cusack’s second biggest budget (Con Air). Therefore, including it in the chart had the effect of flattening all of the other films, making Mr Cusack’s career seem fairly constant.
‘2012’ was not sold on John Cusack’s star power and he did not appear on almost any of the posters (in name or image). Therefore, I have removed it from the chart below in order for the nuances of Mr Cusack’s career to shine out.
Notes on Hollywood action stars
This is clearly just a bit of fun and shouldn’t be used to make any important casting choices. The reported budget for a movie is not always accurate and some movies have managed to keep their true budgets a secret. I excluded films where the actor was not an important part of the key headline talent. For example, Both Kevin Costner and Wesley Snipes played “A Ringside Fan” in the 1999 film Play It To The Bone.