On July 28, 1978, Universal Pictures released the movie “Animal House.” Studio executives had very, very, very low expectations of the film. In fact, they didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance in hell of being a financial success. Studio head Ned Tanen flat-out hated everything about the movie, starting with the screenplay, which was written by an unknown sketch comedian named Harold Ramis. Ramis at this point had literally ZERO experience in the movie business. He eventually went go on to write, direct, and star in some of the most popular comedies of the 80s and 90s including, “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Back to School,” and “Groundhog Day.”

Before production began a year earlier, studio execs hoped to land some serious star power to carry the film. They offered the lead roles to Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi. Everyone except Belushi turned them down. All the other main parts eventually went to first-time actors, most of whom had never set foot on a film set before. That includes a 20-year-old baby-faced Kevin Bacon, who played the douchey rival frat boy Chip Diller in what was his first paid acting gig.

Even with John Belushi locked, the studio was still worried they were missing star power to sell the film to national audiences. So, they tasked the film’s director, John Landis, to secure one more big-name actor for the role of the stoner Professor Dave Jennings. The first person Landis approached was Donald Sutherland, one of the biggest film stars in the world at the time. Donald also happened to be a family friend. Landis used to babysit for Donald’s son… future “24” actor Kiefer Sutherland.

Universal executives were thrilled at the idea. Sutherland would give them the star power and credibility they craved.

To seal the deal, Universal authorized Landis to offer Donald a very generous compensation incentive. Donald eventually agreed to do the movie, but in a way that wound up being a terrible financial blunder…

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You have to keep in mind that in 1978, the idea of a “gross-out” comedy was pretty much unheard of. Today, the plot of Animal House would hardly raise even the most conservative of eyebrows, but in the late 70s, excessive sexual innuendo, drugs, nudity, offensive language, vomiting, and general debauchery were shocking. One of Ramis’ early working titles for the film was “Lazy Orgy Girls.” After writing nine different drafts and settling on the friendlier title “Animal House,” the producers finally convinced Universal to pony up a scant $2.5 million budget to get production underway. In the words of studio head Ned Tanen:

Screw it, it’s a silly little movie, and we’ll make a couple of bucks if we’re lucky — let them do whatever they want.

With such a minuscule budget, the studio authorized John Landis to persuade Donald Sutherland to accept the part of Professor Jennings by offering:

  • 2.5% of the film’s profits plus a salary of $35,000

Sutherland, who thought this movie had no chance of ever making a single dollar, politely declined. Universal then upped the offer:

  • $35,000 plus 15% of the film’s gross earnings

Gross earnings, not net earnings. In other words, 15% of whatever the movie made at the box office BEFORE costs were subtracted. Again, Sutherland politely declined. Donald insisted that if he was going to do the movie, he would get paid in cash only and upfront. When the negotiations were over, Universal and Donald settled on:

  • $50,000 cash upfront with no gross points at all

FYI, $50,000 in 1978 is equal to roughly $235,000 today. Considering he believed that the film would be an absolute bomb, Sutherland was rather pleased with his negotiation skills. After all, he did nearly double his salary for what would amount to a grand total of two days of work!

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, Donald and Universal’s instincts about Animal House were dead wrong.

The movie was an instant smash hit with audiences around the country. The studio and John Landis scrambled together a nationwide promotional campaign that drew huge audiences dressed in togas everywhere they went. Nearly 10,000 students in togas showed up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, setting a Guinness World Record for the biggest toga party, a record that still stands today.

As we all know now, Animal House would eventually go on to be considered one of the funniest movies of all time. In fact, the TV network Bravo ranked it as the #1 comedy of all time. The United States Congress even selected Animal House for preservation in the National Film Registry after deeming the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In terms of money, Animal House would go on to earn more than $141 million at the box office and on home video worldwide. That’s equal to roughly $660 million after adjusting for inflation. Because of Animal House’s minuscule budget, today, it is still technically one of the most profitable movies of all time.

As for poor old Donald Sutherland, his 15% stake would have been worth AT LEAST $20 million. And that’s before home video rentals, network licensing, and eventually, streaming revenue.

When you adjust for inflation, Donald essentially chose $235,000 instead of…

$94 million

Before we feel too bad for Donald Sutherland, let’s remember that he still turned out to have a very successful acting career that was likely boosted by his appearance in Animal House.

Also, let’s keep in mind that while missing out on the equivalent of $94 million is painful, it is still nowhere near as bad as what Sean Connery gave up by turning down the role of Gandolf in Lord of the Rings. Just like with Animal House, studio executives thought LOTR needed at least one big star to sell the movie to audiences. Connery was offered $10 million per film plus 15% of the box office gross on all three movies. Connery turned them down because he “did not understand the script.” The Lord of the Rings franchise would eventually earn over $3 billion at the box office, which means Sean Connery gave up $450 million.

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