ONCE UPON A TIME, Jim Carrey was so hot at playing a nutcase over and over that he scored what in 1996 was the best talent deal ever in motion-picture history: He was paid an unprecedented $20 mil and 20 percent of first-dollar gross for The Cable Guy. Now, Carrey is making news again, but for the worst talent deal ever. I’ve learned that on the upcoming Warner Bros. comedy Yes Man, he’ll receive no upfront cash and no first-dollar gross. Instead, he has a cash-break deal on the back end. That’s right, cash break — in which the actor gets a percentage of revenues only after the overheads are paid, or one step up from that studio sleight of hand known as net profits, which any dumb ass can negotiate for anyone with a speaking role. Instead, Carrey’s deal was okayed by Hollywood’s supposedly best and brightest dealmakers: co-manager Eric Gold, CAA president Richard Lovett and überattorney Deborah Klein. And all I can do is look at this and say, “Huh?

In theory, Carrey’s 36.2 percent sounds massive. But it starts to drop like this month’s Dow Jones average if Yes Man’s costs of production exceeds $70 million and its marketing expenditures go over $50 mil. If more cash than that is spent, then Carrey has to approve the overages. Talk about weird: He has all the headaches of a producer without even the title or guaranteed paycheck.

Ever since I broke this story on my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com, I’ve heard nothing but Industry shock that Carrey’s reps could have recommended such a deal with so much potential downside. One well-known manager summed up the reaction by e-mailing: “Let me put it this way: If his reps were a hospital, they would be shut down for malpractice. This is a new kind of Hollywood stupid.” That’s because the conventional wisdom in Hollywood is always to get as much fixed compensation as you can upfront because you’re never going to see the back end thanks to the studios’ creative accounting. (Little wonder why there are something like 32 definitions of talent deals on movies.)

In my opinion, this has to be the riskiest deal ever made for a major Hollywood star with a major Hollywood studio on a major Hollywood production. Show-biz attorneys tell me they’ve made deals with no money upfront and cash-break back end like this only for top actors on small films for small labels — never on a big film for a big studio. Sure, the studios are re-examining the value of actors deemed responsible for sliding box-office numbers and rising production costs. But this summer is setting a record north of $4 billion for domestic gross. And with the prospect of a walkout by Hollywood writers and actors looming, leading men are at a premium. “Someone like Carrey, even if he’s been cold, should have full leverage coming into the strike when the studios are jamming movies together and you’re one of the big names,” an agency topper told me.

Yet Carrey’s reps insist that he is “more than comfortable” with this deal. Besides, they tell me, “If it all goes to shit, what does he care? He’s wealthy. He doesn’t need the money.” Well, trust me: No one in money-obsessed Hollywood wants to work for free.

So what happened here?

THE STUDIOS CLEARLY FEEL the need now to make Carrey responsible for their bottom line because of all the agita that usually surrounds him on movie sets. Carrey’s meltdown on 2005’s Fun With Dick and Jane may have been the last straw: Sony had to shut down production for a time until the comedian pulled himself back together. On Yes Man, he’ll pay for such behavior. In turn, the pic’s producers, Dick Zanuck and David Heyman, and director, Peyton Reed, will be thrilled at the prospect of Carrey, who’s frequently an honorable mention in the Nightmare Actor category, questioning every dollar they spend.

True, the trades last month trumpeted Carrey signing on to this laugher based on a British memoir about a guy who aims to change his life by saying yes to absolutely everything that comes his way. (Think six degrees of rip-off from Carrey’s previous hit Liar Liar.) But the middling script by Dick and Jane’s Nicholas Stoller had more than once made the rounds before landing in Jim’s lap. And the helmer is the uneven Reed, of the excellent Bring It On but also the execrable Down With Love and The Break-Up.

And then there’s Carrey’s flailing career and failing popularity. Movie after movie of his has collapsed in development (Spielberg’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake, 20th’s Used Guys, Paramount’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Focus Features’ A Little Game Without Consequences), and his most recent release, New Line’s The Number 23, was dead on arrival. Since then, the actor has sat around for nearly a year booking no major movies beyond toon voice-overs (20th’s Horton Hears A Who — a sop for the Used Guys deal going south — and Disney’s A Christmas Carol).

Getting top-tier talent for no money upfront with cash-break back end is like a wet dream for Warner Bros., which was able to make the deal because of how far the star has fallen. Which is why the studio execs were privately patting themselves on the back for coming up with it and then dancing in the hallways when Carrey’s reps went for it.

But here’s the puzzling part: Carrey’s co-manager Gold boasting about being the deal’s architect and claiming it a new paradigm for talent. (Yes, Gold co-manages Carrey with very busy producer Jimmy Miller. But Gold wants his fingerprints all over this one.) I hear financial model after model was done to figure out Yes Man’s risk reward across the board for Carrey. His comedies, factoring in the older ones that made all that major moola, did an average $146 million domestic gross at the box office. (But that number drops down to $101 million if the average of all Carrey’s movies, including the dogs, are taken into account.) If the pic gets to $150 mil, and the budget and marketing overages don’t occur, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then I’m told it’s possible for the actor to make a phenomenal $78M. That’s why Gold is spinning that Carrey is now an “equity investor” in Yes Man:Instead of forgoing his $20 million upfront money, the actor, in effect, invests in the pic with Warner Bros. just like partner Village Roadshow. To Gold, it’s fab that Carrey’s interests are now “completely aligned with the studio. This deal addresses the problem of superstars and studios not being on the same side of the table.”

But aren’t Carrey’s reps supposed to be bargaining from far apart, considering their divergent interests? Isn’t that why there’s an impending strike? Sources tell me that, as an unabashed political conservative, Gold believes that Carrey’s Yes Man deal is “free enterprise at its best.” Which is why Gold wants to convince a group of big stars to give up their advance money and first-dollar gross deals in order to become what he calls “equity investors” in their movies too. But if this is such a great deal, then why is Gold still trying for Carrey’s customary $20M/20 percent on the next project? And if Gold’s successful at converting the stars to his voodoo economics, then what I’ve always predicted has now come true: The lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum known as Hollywood.

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