Doing the Math On Celebrity Voice Acting

There is absolutely no legitimate reason whatsoever why this man was ever let near an animated film.
There is absolutely no legitimate reason whatsoever why this man was ever let near an animated film.

It’s a topic that strikes a nerve within the animation business, but celebrity voice acting (in features and TV) has become ubiquitous over the last 25 years. Today, practically all features from the larger studios rely upon celebrity voice talent regardless of whether or not the performer is right for the role. Aside from that though, is their cost, which is what we’re taking a look at today and why it’s detrimental to them.

The Base Cost of Celebrity Voice Acting

For starters, there’s the salaries. Not all will make a killing, but certainly the ‘millions’ term is bandied about often enough when it comes to celebrities that it makes as good a starting point as any.

Yes, millions of dollars is a lot of money, especially for one person and especially when there is often a full cast of them in a single film. All those extra millions add up once you get larger stars involved. Chris Rock may get one million for Madagascar, but Cameron Diaz purportedly got around $10 million for one of the Shreks.

Where Their Cost Multiplies

Say we have one or two big stars and, oh, five lesser known ones. The two at the top earn $10 million each and the lesser ones earn a million. There’s $25million right there; a quarter of the cost of a $100 million film!

Now, we have to double that to cover marketing costs so a $100 million film has to pull in at least $200 million just to break even. Where do the celebrity voices fit into that? Well, they were a quarter before and they’re just about a quarter now as well. So your $25 million voice actors are actually costing $50 million before you even make a cent.

Ah, but we’re not done yet. After all, box office grosses are no reflection on revenues since cinema chains keep a significant portion (up to half). Even at a conservative estimate (25%), that’s another $6.25 million that celebrity voice actors have cost the production.

Grand total: $56.25 million for seven voices before even $1 in profit is made and we haven’t even touched on those stars that can get gross points; you can add many millions for those if the film is successful.

What That Means For the Production

You see how easily celebrity voices can get out of hand? Is Eddie Murphy voicing the donkey in Shrek and getting $10 million really going to bring in $22.5 million in extra ticket sales?

If you’re making a film, wouldn’t you much rather put that $25 million into the animation itself? Or better yet, save the money and realise it as profit?

Regular readers of this blog will know where I would put it (hint: employment is a profitable investment), the question is: why do studios insist that major non-professional voice actors are a necessity? Remember, it was Robin Williams performance that made is appearance in Aladdin so successful; not the fact that it was Robin Williams doing the voice.

Today, (and we’ll defer from naming names right now) it seems that studios attempt to grab as many celebrities as possible and throw their names on the poster without thought to their talents. Sure Beyonce is a great singer, but does that make her a great voice actress? The trailer for recently-released Epic suggests not in an avoid-at-all-costs kind of way.

Animated films will continue to suffer the blight of celebrity voice acting until there is a bit of a shake up of the business. It’s coming at some point to be sure, but hopefully it puts things right.

Lastly, for your viewing pleasure, here’s professional Marice LaMarche at work:

Maurice LaMarche in full flow at a recording session
Maurice LaMarche in full flow at a recording session

4 thoughts on “Doing the Math On Celebrity Voice Acting”

  1. I’m not sure anyone gets gross points in a studio film, talent would have to be a “producer” at least for it to be considered (but I get your point).

    Let’s speak under the assumption that the whole system is ridiculous so we not really discussing the merits of celebrity voice acting but the mechanics of it.

    Eddie Murphy is a good example, and it’s great that you brought marketing in to it. Can anyone other than Mr. Murphy or Mike Myers substantially promote the film? We all say that “no one sees “Cameron Diaz’ name on a poster then goes to buy a ticket”, but what if we see her on Letterman and she’s showing clips from the film? That’s publicity that, unfortunately, can’t be had any other way.

    Additionally, there’s an imprimatur given by celebrity. A parent -and market studies back this up -is more likely to bring their family to a film that has recognizable names with established talents. The “Disney” name is further proof of this. Dreamworks had to use celebrity voices, in part, to match the ingrained branding of the D-Corp.

    Ultimately, I think the celebrity actor feeds the cycle of gargantuanism that we discussed in the other post. It’s a symptom of the Hollywood system and something that helps sustain its teetering structure.

    1. I really don’t think that celebrity names add much value to the promotion of an animated film, certainly not enough to justify that kind of fee. If the performance is great, an average viewer might remember Tom Hanks or Tim Allen in Toy Story. But I think if you ask 100 people outside the industry who voiced the father in The Croods, despite all the publicity surrounding it, I think you might find one or two that know the right answer.

  2. All of the things mentioned here are right that why Tom and Jerry are superb they are animation in pure form we should go back to the basic like the first lamp animation from Pixar and use voice acting only be part of an character and the storyline the main person

  3. Thanks for your article. The mental self talk is a HUGE component for success in any business, but especially for voice actors! My husband has coached people for years on helping them change their mental thought patterns and beliefs. These can be very deep and very old ways of thinking that are difficult to change without an effective approach. What stops most people in life is their own thinking. Great insights, thank you! All the best

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