Movies have glamorized many occupations over the years. The films of Humphrey Bogart let viewers live vicariously as street-smart private eyes. James Bond made audience members imagine themselves as debonair, globe-hopping spies with exotic seductresses in every port of call. And Clint Eastwood’s westerns made people visualize themselves as the frontier’s messengers of bloody vengeance.
What these films failed to do was accurately convey a picture of their main characters’ day-to-day finances. Was James Bond paid enough to afford all that Beluga caviar, or did he have to expense it? Did Sam Spade earn enough to cover what he spent every day on cigarettes? How many people did “The Man with No Name” have to kill to collect enough bounty to buy his poncho? The movies never answered these questions.
CNBC.com looked at several contemporary films and considered how their main characters made their living. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and job search sites such as Indeed.com, we determined what the characters’ actual salaries would be in real life, and then tried to determine if they could really afford to live in that apartment, drive that car, or eat at that restaurant.
Which movies had main characters that lived within their onscreen means, and which depicted unrealistic fantasies? Click ahead and find out.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 28 October 2011
Average salary for a cable installer: $34,000
The 1996 movie “The Cable Guy” stars Jim Carrey as a mentally unbalanced cable installer. He becomes uncomfortably chummy with a customer played by Matthew Broderick, and his efforts to foster camaraderie include taking Broderick to the Medieval Times dinner theater.
Real-life cable installers make an average annual salary of $34,000, according to the job search site Indeed.com. Dinner for two in good seats costs $128.30 at the Lyndhurst, N.J., Medieval Times location, according to Ricardo Salazar, the theater's marketing and sales director. That’s a prohibitively high price to pay for someone whose weekly gross income is a mere $654.
Average salary for a computer programmer: $71,380
In the 1999 film “Office Space,” Ron Livingston plays a disgruntled computer programmer. Although the movie didn’t do much at the box office, it endures as a cult classic, thanks to its hilarious dialogue and one-liners.
”Office Space” realistically depicts its main character’s financial situation. Computer programmers earn a mean annual salary of $71,380, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is enough to comfortably afford the monthly rent on his one-bedroom apartment, the payments on his midsize car, and the regular dry cleaning of his shirts, slacks, and ties.
Average salary for a paranormal investigator: N/A
In the 1984 film “Ghostbusters,” Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis portray paranormal investigators. Early in the film they encounter financial hard times as they try to launch their ghost-hunting business, but after some high-profile successes capturing wily poltergeists, the entrepreneurs find themselves flush with cash.
The real life of a paranormal investigator is decidedly less glamorous. Not only is there no regular salary to speak of, many investigators are in fact paid nothing at all. Even Jason Hawes, star of the long-running Syfy channel TV reality show “Ghost Hunters,” hasn’t quit his day job as a plumber for Roto Rooter.
Average salary for a stock room clerk: $21,290
The 2005 film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” follows the misadventures of the title character, played by Steve Carell. He works as a stock room clerk in an electronics store, a position with an average annual salary of $21,290, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Carell’s character lives alone in a one-bedroom unit in an apartment complex. While he would probably need to get a roommate to afford the modest rent on such a property, he makes up for the shortfall by commuting on a bicycle instead of by car, thereby sparing himself the expense of monthly payments, auto insurance, and gas.
Average salary for a security guard: $23,920
”Roadhouse” is a 1989 film starring Patrick Swayze. He portrays Dalton, a bouncer who comes to a seedy bar to do two things: drink coffee and forcibly eject patrons...and he’s all out of coffee. He holds a philosophy degree from New York University, and between furious rounds of bone-shattering fisticuffs, he dispenses such aphorisms as, “Pain don’t hurt,” without even mussing his hair.
Bouncers are considered part of the security sector, and the mean annual salary for a security guard is $23,920, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this may not seem like much money to live on, Swayze’s character pays only $100 a month in rent, well within the reach of his salary. Therefore, the film is completely realistic in its financial depiction of a bouncer.
Average salary for a writer: N/A
”Sex and the City” is a 2008 movie based on the popular HBO series of the same name. It stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, published author and writer at Vogue magazine. She owns a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and has an insatiable appetite for expensive designer shoes.
Almost any writer will be only too happy to state that this depiction of a writer’s lifestyle is wildly inaccurate. In fact, even “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell can confirm that she spent many years in a state of abject poverty, including one year in which she earned all of $8,000. For the majority of writers, the financial situation depicted in this film is pure fantasy.
Average salary for a personal assistant: $39,000
The 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” stars Meryl Streep as a tyrannical fashion magazine editor. Her personal assistant is played by Anne Hathaway, and she endures multiple indignities while trying to fulfill her employer’s completely unreasonable demands.
The average salary for a personal assistant is $39,000, according to the job search site Indeed.com. The exterior of the character’s apartment was shot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where cheap rents can still be found, so someone on that salary who lives with a gainfully employed boyfriend could afford to live there. The character also "shops" for her pricey, fashionable wardrobe in Vogue's sample closet — for free.
Average salary for a waitress: $20,790
In the 1997 comedy “As Good As It Gets,” Helen Hunt portrays a waitress. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the mean annual salary for a waiter or waitress at a full-service restaurant is $20,790, but for most, baseline salaries are only part of the story. The real money for most food servers comes from tips, which vary wildly and often go underreported on tax returns.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that annual income from tips is often higher than wages, meaning that Hunt’s character would likely earn over $40,000 a year as opposed to $20,000. Still, that’s hardly a goldmine, so it’s probably a good idea for her to keep her affordable Brooklyn apartment.
Average salary for an astronaut: $82,921
When little children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, common answers are police officer, firefighter, or astronaut. The 1995 film “Apollo 13” likely inspired many youngsters to daydream about that last option, and hold hope that someday, they too could venture into the stars.
While being an astronaut is no doubt a thrilling vocation, the pay’s not bad either. Those on the General Schedule 12 U.S. civil service pay scale earn a starting salary of $65,140, while those at GS-13 can earn as much as $100,701 a year, putting the middle-class lifestyle afforded Tom Hanks’ character well within reach.
Average salary for a night watchman: $27,000
“Night at the Museum” is a 2006 comedy film starring Ben Stiller as an overnight security guard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At night, the exhibits come to life, and he encounters a fully animated Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, a wax statue of Theodore Roosevelt, and a mummy.
In the 2009 sequel, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” Stiller’s character has left the night watchman job behind and become a wealthy entrepreneur. This is a major improvement over the type of salary available to most night watchmen. The average annual salary is $27,000 a year, according to the job search site Indeed.com.