“National Lampoon’s Animal House” is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Yet in 1978, not even one of its stars believed in the potential of a small comedy about toga parties.
That is why when it came down to Donald Sutherland taking a fee of either 2% of the film’s gross or $US35,000, Sutherland took the latter.
Here’s how that “Animal House” blunder ended up costing him millions.
“Fat, Drunk, And Stupid Is No Way To Make A Movie, Son”
“Everybody is drunk, or high, or getting laid. I’d never make this movie.”
According to Matty Simmons’ “Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House,” these are the words of Universal Studios boss Ned Tanen after he read the first outline of “Animal House.”
It wasn’t until the production promised Tanen that they could make the film for $US3 million that Universal signed on. However, the studio still wanted a star to sell the movie to audiences.
For Universal, “Saturday Night Live” stand-out John Belushi wasn’t enough, so director John Landis went to an old friend, Donald Sutherland (who was a huge star in 1978), and asked him for a favour. A hesitant Sutherland ultimately agreed to be in the film, but only after Landis told him that all his scenes could be done in a day.
Seemingly, both the studio and the comedy now had its “star.” Yet, there was still the important matter of just how much Sutherland would get paid for the one day on set.
“I Just Want The Money”
According to Simmons, the studio wanted a star but “wouldn’t pay for a star.” This then led to a negotiation that Sutherland would regret for years to come.
“[Sutherland] first asked for $US250,000 and, in Landis’s words, ‘The studio said, ‘Get the f— outta here!'” Simmons wrote.
Universal then countered Sutherland’s offer with a simple $US20,000 for a day’s work plus points on the film.
The problem was that Sutherland wanted nothing to do with points on the film, and would famously tell Landis:
“I can’t take that offer. I just want the money. I don’t want any points in the movie.”
Universal eventually offered a fee of $US35,000 with no points for a day plus one — in Hollywood speak, meaning technically two days of work because you can’t hire an actor for just one day in case they go over time. Sutherland would happily accept and would play the film’s pot-smoking professor, Dave Jennings.
Then on July 28, 1978, Sutherland and the rest of the world got to see the finished product when “Animal House” hit theatres, and comedy would never be the same.
A Box Office Animal
“Animal House” would go on to become one of the most successful comedies of all time, pulling in $141,600,000 at the box office on the $US3 million production budget Universal was initially promised.
All of which Sutherland could have had a stake in back in 1978.
According to an Interview with the Opie and Anthony radio show, Sutherland would go on to say that the number of points he was offered was 2%.
When asked, “Do you know what 2% would have roughly translated into?” Sutherland smirked and responded, “I don’t want to know.”
Today, that 2% would have made him $US2.8 million, or upward of $US10 million after inflation.
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