A Look at Stars’ Salaries in Film and TV

By Artine Malyan  | 

Covid-19 permanently altered many aspects of our world, including entertainment. Not long ago, Hollywood film and TV stars measured success by how well their movie performed at the box office or whether their show became a syndicated hit. Now those metrics are mainly relics of the past, due to decreased theater attendance rates and the dawn of the digital revolution. When it comes to the film and television industries, stars are earning salaries in surprising ways. Here’s how.

Movie A-Listers
In 1996, Jim Carrey broke the Hollywood payment mold by becoming the first actor to receive a $20 million check for his dark comedy, The Cable Guy. Studio executives believed he could command enough theater audiences to make back at least that amount during the movie’s opening weekend. Now such hefty upfront reimbursements are somewhat of a rarity—minus a few exceptions. Sandra Bullock will reportedly earn that sum for her upcoming romantic-comedy, The Lost City of D, set to hit theaters next April. Ditto Brad Pitt in Sony Pictures’ Bullet Train premiering the same month, and Chris Hemsworth for Disney’s Thor: Love and Thunder coming in May. Other A-list actors must contend with lower rates, including Chris Pine’s $11.5 million takeaway for Paramount’s Dungeons & Dragons (set for March 3, 2023), or Robert Pattison’s relatively modest $3 million payout for his turn in The Batman (hitting theaters March 4, 2022).

On the opposite end of that spectrum are stars who struck deals with Netflix, Amazon or other select streamers. Some platforms now compensate certain A-list actors for the projected back-end payments (profits made only after the completion of a sale or debut of a film) they would have garnered had the movie premiered exclusively in theaters. Dwayne Johnson, for example, will earn a reported $30 million for his upcoming action-adventure flick, Red One, set to air on Amazon Prime sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day 2023, though that figure could swell to $50 million upon completion of his back-end deal. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence will pull in a cool $30 million and $25 million, respectively, for their work in Don’t Look Up, a comedy hitting Netflix in December. Keanu Reeves is entitled to an undisclosed back-end fee in addition to the $12 to $14 million he’s making for The Matrix: Resurrections, also coming this December to HBO Max. Julia Roberts is getting $25 million to star in Netflix’s thriller, Leave the World Behind. And Tom Cruise will get $13 million upfront for Paramount’s Top Gun 2, slated for a November release, in addition to first-dollar back-end payments—meaning the mega star is compensated before studios see a penny of box office earnings. Still, nothing tops the riches soon to be enjoyed by Daniel Craig. His Netflix deal could rake in upward of $100 million for two sequels to 2019’s hit film, Knives Out.

TV Stars
The skyrocketing success of streaming platforms hasn’t only changed compensation models for film actors; TV stars are likewise being affected. The “$1 million club” is insider speak for the amount paid per episode to some of television’s hottest celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon, all of whom will earn that figure for HBO’s upcoming 10-episode Sex and the City revival. Actors Jeff Bridges (FX on Hulu’s The Old Man), Steve Carell (Netflix’s Space Force), Elizabeth Moss (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and Nicole Kidman (HBO’s Big Little Lies) can likewise be added to that elite group, as streamers continue their quest to sign A-list talent for original content series. “You’re seeing a lot of pressure at Apple, Amazon, Hulu, to cast these major names and their shows, and for that they’re willing to spend a ton of money,” said one rep.

That means that for many actors, the once-hefty million-dollar prize has ballooned to an even greater per-episode payment. Chris Pratt reportedly snagged $1.4 million for each episode of The Terminal List, his Amazon Prime thriller series. Robert Downey Jr. is rumored have made $2 million—or more— per episode for HBO’s The Sympathizer, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. And the Friends cast members got at least $2.5 million each for The Reunion episodes that aired this May on HBO Max. Interestingly, in the age of streaming, payments for top television actors happen mostly upfront, with few deals including back-end compensation clauses. And they must be substantial partly because they inherently exclude the possibility for off-network syndication earnings, since shows live on streaming platforms for long periods of time or in perpetuity.

Hollywood’s Financial Future
Streaming has inarguably changed the way Hollywood operates, and many studios are now learning how to navigate that ever-shifting landscape. On July 29, Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for their decision to simultaneously release her new film, Black Widow, in theaters and on Disney Plus. Lawyers for the actress argued it was a breach of contract, with Disney intentionally preventing Johansson from accruing her full $50 million back-end compensation, which was tied to box-office sales, in order to boost their own streaming platform stock prices. The studio fired back, revealing Johansson’s $20 million upfront salary and countering that her contract didn’t necessitate an “exclusive” theatrical release. In the confusing age of Covid, when distribution models are up for definition, such types of disputes are plausible, whereas in the past legalities may have been more ironclad. Case in point: Warner Bros. reached a $350 million settlement with creative talent earlier this year after simultaneously releasing its full 2021 roster in both theaters and HBO Max. “We’re all reconsidering our contracts,” said Uri Singer, producer of Netflix’s White Noise. “It’s not like it was two years ago, where there was a set definition of a back end. Now, you’re not even sure there will be a theatrical release, and that changes things completely.” As is the case with most pandemic-related matters, much remains to be resolved. In the meantime, one constant remains true: your favorite film and TV stars aren’t hurting for cash.

Artine Malyan
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